Senators warn Medicare appeals system 'buckling under its own weight'

The Senate Finance Committee is demanding more attention on the growing backlog of Medicare appeals claims, which federal officials are continuing to blame on a lack of funding.

The Office of Medicare Hearings and Appeals is receiving a record number of appeals, with the processing time for each claim more than quadrupling over the last five years to an average of 550 days.

“We definitely feel the urgency,” Nancy Griswold, the chief law judge at the Office of Medicare Hearings and Appeals, told the committee Tuesday. “We are keenly aware of the impact that these delays are having.”

Griswold urged support for President Obama’s proposed budget, which would grow the cash-strapped agency’s budget by nearly $300 million. The additional funds would help double the office’s capacity to process cases, she said.

The agency's budget was $82.3 million over the last fiscal year, up from $69 million the previous year. Its staffing has increased from 492 to 514 over the same period.

The Medicare administrative judge also supported an idea from the panel’s top Democrat, Sen. Ron WydenRon WydenSenate bill would repeal most ObamaCare taxes, delay Cadillac tax Live coverage: Senate GOP unveils its ObamaCare repeal bill Senate Dem: GOP healthcare bill will result in ‘a lot of pain’ for millions MORE (D-Ore.), who proposed a refundable filing fee to keep out providers who are “gaming the system.”

“I think filing fee would encourage appellants to take a closer look at what they are appealing,” Griswold said.

The Office of Medicare Hearings and Appeals received a staggering 700,000 claims in fiscal year 2013 – compared to 60,000 submitted two years prior.

Despite the 10-fold jump in claims, the number of officers handling cases remains at 60, Wyden pointed out.

“It’s no wonder that the appeals system is buckling under its own weight,” Wyden told the committee.

Committee chairman Orrin HatchOrrin HatchLive coverage: Senate GOP unveils its ObamaCare repeal bill Grassley doesn't see how Judiciary 'can avoid' obstruction probe Ryan calls for tax reform to be permanent MORE (R-Utah) did not endorse any specific proposals to reform the appeals system, but sounded the alarm about the growing problem. 

“We understand that handling a large volume of appeals is a daunting task ,” Hatch said. “We must work in tandem in the process is to be reformed.”