House vote delays cut in Medicare pay for doctors



The House has passed and sent to President Barack Obama a bill to delay for a year an impending sharp cut in Medicare pay to doctors that threatened to disrupt care for the nation’s seniors.

The action to prevent a scheduled 25 percent cut to doctors on Jan. 1 will cost an estimated $19 billion, to be paid for by shifting money from the health care overhaul law. The money will come mostly from tightening the rules on tax credits in the health care law intended to prevent waste. The credits will make premiums more affordable for millions.

The 409-2 House vote came a day the Senate approved the measure by a voice vote. It now goes to Obama, who had urged quick passage of the measure he said was “an important step forward to stabilize Medicare.”

“AARP applauds the U.S. House and Senate for stopping the looming pay cut to Medicare doctors, scheduled to take effect on Jan. 1,” said AARP Massachusetts State Director Deborah Banda.  “Thanks to their efforts, seniors now have peace of mind knowing they can keep the doctors they trust. In Massachusetts about 20,000 doctors treat more than one million Medicare patients.

“According to our research, most seniors in Massachusetts — across party lines — wanted Congress to fight to stop this cut.  And, the majority of Bay State seniors said they would view their elected officials more favorably if they fought to protect payments to Medicare doctors.”

The doctor cuts are the result of a 1990s budget-balancing law that tried, but failed, to keep Medicare spending in line through automatic reductions. Congress repeatedly stepped in to waive the cuts. Lately, lawmakers have had to act every few months.

Congress was under tremendous pressure this time, with medical groups estimating that as many as two-thirds of doctors would stop taking new Medicare patients. Health care for military service members, their families and retirees was also in jeopardy, since Tricare payments are tied to Medicare’s.

The one-year delay “was vital to preserve seniors’ access to physician care in 2011,” said Cecil B. Wilson, president of the American Medical Association. “Many physicians made clear that this year’s roller coaster ride, caused by five delays of this year’s cut, forced them to make difficult practice changes like limiting the number of Medicare patients they could treat.”

Congress will use the 12-month reprieve to try to come up with a new way of paying doctors that rewards quality care instead of sheer numbers of tests and procedures.

“For too long, we have confronted this recurring problem with temporary fixes and stopgap measures,” Obama said. “It’s time for a permanent solution that seniors and their doctors can depend on, and I look forward to working with Congress to address this matter once and for all in the coming year.”

The bill is H.R. 4994.

Experts from a statement issued by  AARP Massachusetts were used in this report.