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U.S. Congress rushes to avert doctor pay cuts

Medicare
Medicare

By Susan Cornwell and Thomas Ferraro

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - U.S. House and Senate leaders said on Wednesday they were working to avert looming Medicare pay cuts for doctors, with a House vote on a temporary solution expected on Thursday and Senate action also possible in the coming days.

Many lawmakers in both parties support the idea of finding a permanent solution to the Medicare payment system, fearing that otherwise doctors will be forced to turn away patients seeking access to care under the government-funded healthcare program for the elderly.

Republican House Speaker John Boehner said on Wednesday he expected Congress to act swiftly after he and Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, a Democrat, agreed to a proposal to delay the cuts for another year.

The House of Representatives will vote on Thursday, Boehner said, adding he expected the Senate would follow quickly. He said the short-term, 12-month remedy does not preclude any work from being done on a longer-term solution.

Reid later told reporters that he was working with Boehner on the issue, but added that Senate Democrats still favored a permanent repeal of Medicare's contentious payment formula so that lawmakers could "get rid of this once and for all."

"We may have to do another patch, but we are trying really hard," Reid said at a news conference following Boehner's.

Hundreds of thousands of doctors who participate in traditional Medicare face a 24 percent pay cut on April 1, a situation dating to a 1990s initiative to restrain federal spending on the government healthcare program, which today serves nearly 50 million elderly and disabled people.

Doctors hoped to see a final fix to the payment problem this year after Republicans and Democrats in both chambers of Congress agreed in February on a policy to replace the old payment formula, known as the sustainable growth rate or SGR.

But there was no agreement on how to fund the $138 billion cost of the repair over the next decade, a serious sticking point in the Republican-run House.

PATCHES VS. REPEAL

The American Medical Association, which represents 225,000 physicians and is one of the most powerful lobby groups, expressed frustration that Congress was working on yet another temporary fix on doctor pay and urged lawmakers not to pass it.

In a statement issued Wednesday, AMA President Ardis Dee Hoven urged the House and Senate to instead work on legislation to permanently repeal the pay cuts.

Senate Finance Committee Chairman Ron Wyden, a Democrat, said he was not giving up on getting a permanent fix through the Senate in the coming days, saying the costs could be offset with billions that have been appropriated but not spent in Afghanistan. "We're getting out of Afghanistan," he said.

Wyden said it was ridiculous for Congress to go on patching the formula, adding that lawmakers had already passed 16 temporary fixes that cost taxpayers some $150 billion. The patch under discussion now would cost about $22 billion, he said.

"The cost of the patches adds up pretty much to the cost of repeal," Wyden said in a telephone interview.

Earlier this month the House passed a repair that would have been permanent but paid for by delaying for five years the tax penalty most Americans must pay if they decline to sign up for President Barack Obama's landmark healthcare program.

Most House Democrats refused to endorse that approach, which appeared to have no chance of winning Senate passage and which the White House threatened to veto if it did.

Some analysts said the temporary fix the House planned to take up on Thursday was not totally paid for by other savings. Part of the bill's savings were achieved by a "gimmick," shifting savings from the automatic 2013 budget cuts from one year to another, the Committee for a Responsible budget said in a statement.

(Reporting by Susan Cornwell and Thomas Ferraro; Editing by Caren Bohan, Sophie Hares and Prudence Crowther)

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