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Doctors urge Congress to halt Medicare pay cuts

By Julie Steenhuysen

CHICAGO (Reuters) - The American Medical Association unleashed its latest salvo on Monday in its campaign against cuts in Medicare payments to doctors with a survey that finds overwhelming concern among Americans.

The physician's group did an online survey of 1,000 Americans aged 18 and older and found 94 percent of them said they are concerned about the cuts to doctors who treat elderly patients.

The group released the findings at a meeting in San Diego to kick off a new advertising and lobbying push to convince lawmakers to block payment cuts -- set to take effect December 1 -- before they recess for the Thanksgiving holiday later this month.

"Congress must stop the cuts before seniors' healthcare is put in jeopardy," AMA President Dr. Cecil Wilson told reporters on a telephone briefing.

Wilson warned of a "catastrophe" if Congress does not act to block the payment cuts. He said many doctors will be forced to see fewer patients covered by the Medicare health insurance program for the elderly and disabled.

The survey also found that 81 percent of adults agreed that Congress should act immediately to stop the Medicare physician payment cut, including 91 percent of people 55 or older, and 96 percent of people 65 or older

The poll was conducted from October 22 to 26 by Synovate eNation and had a margin of error of plus or minus 3 percentage points. AMA did not disclose the number of people over age 65 who were surveyed.

In June, the group launched a similar campaign after Congress went on a week-long Memorial Day holiday before acting on a bill that would have postponed a pay cut that took effect on June 1.

Congress passed a six-month fix to the problem in late June. Wilson said many doctors at the time had to cut back on the number of Medicare patients they could see.

The doctors' group wants a 13-month freeze on cuts until the system can be fixed.

The AMA has been lobbying for a permanent change in the payment formula that it says is outdated and will allow steep cuts in Medicare payments if it had not been for repeated action by Congress to delay them.

Lawmakers for years have avoided a more permanent fix, which would cost about $250 billion over a decade, because of its impact on the long-term budget outlook.

The AMA represents about 23 percent of the nearly 1.1 million physicians and medical students in the United States.

(Editing by Eric Walsh)