Congress increases Medicare Physician Payments

Bloomberg) — The Senate passed and sent to President Barack Obama legislation to avert a pay cut for doctors who treat Medicare patients, just hours before reductions would start affecting physicians.

The Senate voted 92-8 in favor of the measure after rejecting amendments that would have required additional House action.

“The reductions in doctors’ reimbursement would take effect at midnight tonight, so I think there’s a bipartisan desire to move forward,” Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, a Kentucky Republican, told reporters Tuesday before the measure passed. Afterward, in a stement he termed the bill “a sensible compromise.”

The measure marks a rare bipartisan agreement for Congress, which has suffered from low public approval ratings amid gridlock and a partial government shutdown in 2013. The House passed the legislation 392-37 on March 26.

“This is great. Let’s do more of this,” Obama said after the House vote last month.

After the Senate passed the bill, Obama said in a statement that he would sign it.

The legislation would eliminate an annual headache for Congress. Lawmakers have voted 17 times since 2002 to stop an existing Medicare cost-containment plan from cutting the pay of doctors who participate in the health-care program for the elderly. Medicare is projected to cost $622 billion in fiscal 2015.

The bill, H.R. 2, would replace the Medicare sustainable growth rate (SGR) formula for physician payments in place since 1997. The American Medical Association, the largest U.S. doctors’ organization, has lobbied annually to head off the pay cuts. The current formula would cut doctors’ pay 21 percent.

Children’s health

The measure also would extend the Children’s Health Insurance Program (CHIP) for two years past its current Sept. 30 expiration.

Congress’s Gallup Poll approval rating, which fell as low as 9 percent in November 2013 after a partial government shutdown, reached 20 percent in February.

House votes on the Medicare bill and the chamber’s fiscal 2016 budget marked a turnaround from earlier disputes among Republicans that almost led the Department of Homeland Security to shut down and forced Speaker John Boehner to pull some bills for lack of support.

Democrats supported the Medicare measure because they see it as delivering benefits to low-income senior citizens, children and families. They say it would help low-income seniors pay their Medicare Part B premiums, add $750 million for training nurses and doctors, and secure money for community health centers and CHIP.