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House fights cutting Medicare payments

Doctors facing 21 percent cut in reimbursement

WASHINGTON – The Democratic-controlled House voted Thursday to add more than $200 billion to the deficit to prevent steep Medicare payment cuts to doctors, a move Republicans denounced as a political payoff.

The measure, approved on a near party-line vote of 243 to 183, is a top priority for the American Medical Association. The GOP contended that Democrats supported the bill to thank the doctors group for backing President Barack Obama’s health care overhaul.

“This is nothing more than a repayment to the American Medical Association for endorsing the larger health care bill that was on the floor several weeks ago,” said Rep. Joe Barton, R-Texas.

“This is not a question of payoff to anybody,” retorted Majority Leader Steny Hoyer, D-Md. “It’s the right thing to do.”

Characterizing the measure as “an important step forward,” the president lauded the legislators “for taking action to protect the care and physician choice that Medicare beneficiaries and TRICARE (military) patients have earned” in a statement issued by the White House late Thursday.

Doctors are facing a 21 percent reduction in Medicare reimbursement rates in January unless Congress acts first, the result of a flawed funding formula that lawmakers have had to step in nearly annually to block in recent years.

The bill passed Thursday attempts a permanent fix by restructuring the payments to factor in how much doctors spend on various services, among other changes.

Past votes on the issue have been largely bipartisan, but this year the doctor payment issue has become a proxy for the larger health overhaul debate. Only one Republican voted “yes” Thursday, Rep. Michael Burgess of Texas, an obstetrician. Eleven Democrats voted “no.”

Despite intense lobbying by the AMA, the doctor payment legislation failed in the Senate last month in an embarrassing defeat, with moderate Democrats concerned about the deficit joining Republicans to bring it down. That leaves its future uncertain even though the rate cuts loom in less than two months.

The Obama administration has sought a permanent solution to avoid the uncertainty of one-year payment patches, and House Democrats obliged by including it in their 10-year health overhaul bill.