WASHINGTON – Congress on Tuesday rejected President Bush’s veto of legislation protecting doctors from a 10.6 percent cut in their reimbursement rates when treating Medicare patients.
The override vote in the House was a lopsided 383-41, easily meeting the two-thirds threshold needed to nullify the president’s veto. About an hour later, the Senate voted to override, 70-26.
Bush has vetoed bills nine times, and Congress has had the muscle to override him only on a water projects bill and twice on farm legislation.
Lawmakers were under pressure from doctors and the elderly patients they serve to void the rate cut, which kicked in on July 1. The cut is based on a formula that establishes lower reimbursement rates when Medicare spending levels exceed established targets.
The president said he supported rescinding the pay cut, but he objected to the way lawmakers would finance the plan, largely by reducing spending on private health plans serving the elderly and disabled.
“I support the primary objective of this legislation, to forestall reductions in physician payments,” Bush said in a statement. “Yet taking choices away from seniors to pay physicians is wrong.”
About 600,000 doctors treat Medicare patients. Many said they would no longer accept new elderly patients if the cuts stood.
Democratic lawmakers used a variety of terms to describe Bush’s veto earlier Tuesday. Some called it “meaningless.” Others called it “mean-spirited.”
“His days of doing us harm are very, very limited,” said Rep. Charles Rangel, D-N.Y., the chairman of the House Ways and Means Committee.
Instead of a cut, the legislation would keep Medicare rates for doctors where they are for the rest of 2008 and would increase them by 1.1 percent in 2009. The legislation generates the revenue necessary to pay doctors more by reducing spending on private health insurance plans. Those plans serve more than 9 million people through the Medicare Advantage program.
Insurers and the Bush administration argued the changes Democrats sought would lead to benefit cuts and to fewer Medicare Advantage plans. The Congressional Budget Office estimated that over the course of five years, enrollment in Medicare Advantage would grow to 12 million rather than to 14.3 million.
Bush said the bill would reduce “access, benefits and choices for all beneficiaries.”
“We don’t have to punish the patients to help the doctors,” said Rep. Mike Rogers, R-Mich.
However, Democratic lawmakers and some Republicans believe the government’s payments to the plans are too generous and that those payments drive up costs for taxpayers as well as the 44 million participants in the program.