Lawmakers express hopes for permanent Medicare 'doc fix'

Committee leaders in both the House and Senate expressed optimism Thursday that Congress could soon reform Medicare's flawed physician payment system.

The chairmen of the Senate Finance and House Ways and Means committees urged quick progress on bills to repeal the sustainable growth rate (SGR) formula, a goal that's eluded Congress for more than a decade.

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"Enough is enough. After a decade of Band-Aid solutions, it is time for this committee to act," said Finance Committee Chairman Max Baucus (D-Mont.).

Both panels were marking up bills Thursday that would repeal the SGR and replace it with a system moving Medicare toward value-based payments.

Doctors who serve Medicare patients are facing a pay cut of about 20 percent at the end of the year unless Congress acts.

While some lawmakers expected in the spring to approve a permanent "doc fix" by Dec. 31, that agenda was overtaken by the government shutdown and several other must-pass bills.

Now, a three-month "doc fix" could be passed alongside the budget agreement announced this week by Sen. Patty Murray (D-Wash.) and Rep. Paul Ryan (R-Wis.), setting the stage for SGR repeal next year.

House Ways and Means Committee Chairman Dave Camp (R-Mich.) noted that the time is ripe, given that the cost of overhauling the system is very low.

"The Congressional Budget Office has lowered the estimated cost of replacing the SGR to just over $116 billion over 10 years — more than half of the cost two years ago," Camp said.

The difficulty for lawmakers is finding and agreeing to pay-fors to offset the cost of reform. Healthcare stakeholders are tired of cuts and wary of any deal that might target them.

Senate Finance Committee ranking member Orrin Hatch (R-Utah) emphasized that the bill would be paid for, "period," and said those discussions would take place once the bills pass out of committee.