Medicare 'doc fix' left out of Senate health bill

Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) cut provisions from his healthcare reform bill that would have given doctors a temporary hike in their Medicare fees, a move he said was actually urged by physician lobbyists.

The version of the bill approved by the Senate Finance Committee would have given the doctors a 0.5 percent pay raise next year. Because of chronic flaws in the statutory formula used to calculate how much Medicare pays doctors, they're on the hook for a 21.5 percent pay cut next year.

But the doctors didn't want the Senate to pass a one-year fix because they want to keep up the pressure on Congress to finally fix the statutory formula that creates the unnecessary cuts in the first place, Reid told reporters. "The doctors thought that was the way to move forward," Reid said.

Doctors will get a slight reprieve when President Barack Obama signs the defense spending bill the Senate passed Saturday morning, at least. That legislation blocks the pay cut for two months, giving Congress a little time to do something more substantial. Congress has passed a series of short-term fixes nearly every year this decade, a tactic the Senate was poised to repeat. "They're entitled to more than that and we agree," Reid said.

The Senate failed to pass legislation this fall that would have permanently fixed the physician payment problem, largely because Reid put the measure on the floor without budgetary offsets to prevent its nearly $250 billion cost from adding to the federal budget deficit.

If the Senate passes its healthcare bill on Christmas Eve as planned, ohysicians may see their problem addressed when the House and Senate come together to hash out a final version of the bill to send to Obama. The House-passsed healthcare measure includes a one-year fix to the payments issue. Reid said that Congress would return to the issue after Congress returns from its holiday recess.