By Mike Lillis
The House on Thursday passed legislation to reverse a steep pay cut for Medicare doctors that took hold this month.
The temporary "doc-fix" bill will stave off the 21-percent cut until December, instead providing a 2.2 percent pay increase for doctors who treat Medicare patients.
Though the Senate had passed the bill unanimously on Friday, House Democrats sat on the proposal this week in order to pressure Senate budget hawks to back a larger tax extenders proposal, which included an extension of unemployment benefits and $15 billion for state Medicaid programs. When it became clear that the tax package would fail in the Senate, however, House Democrats finally -- and reluctantly -- brought the stand-alone doc-fix bill to the floor.
It passed 417 to 1. Rep. George Miller (D-Calif.) was the only nay.
Democratic leaders had been quick to register their discontent with the scope of the bill.
House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) last week called the proposal "inadequate" and "a great disappointment."
The American Medical Association (AMA), the nation's largest doctors lobby, offered a similar message. For years, the group has urged Congress to repeal the formula that updates Medicare's physician payments -- a formula that most health experts agree is flawed. To no avail.
"Delaying the problem is not a solution," AMA President Cecil Wilson said in a statement. "It doesn’t solve the Medicare mess Congress has created with a long series of short-term Medicare patches over the last decade -- including four to avert the 2010 cut alone."
Wilson said that the perennial process of providing temporary pay patches creates an uncertainty among physicians that threatens patient care.
Democrats have tried repeatedly to pass a much longer fix. In November, the House passed legislation to repeal Medicare's physician payment formula, but the bill was shot down in the Senate by budget hawks with no appetite for adding more than $200 billion to the federal deficit. In similar fashion, Senate centrists this month objected to a 19-month doc fix provision, which the House passed in May without offsets elsewhere in the budget.
Last week, Sens. Max Baucus (D-Mont.) and Charles Grassley (R-Iowa), the leaders of the Finance Committee, hammered out a late-night deal on the six-month fix. The lawmakers offset the $6.4 billion proposal -- retroactive to June 1, when the cut took place -- by tweaking hospital reimbursements and allowing businesses to delay payments into pension funds.
The lawmakers issued a joint statement praising the House vote.
“This action," Grassley said, "was critically needed so there’s no disruption in services for anyone.”