Democrats downplay effect of $245 billion doctor funding bill

Senate Democratic leaders on Thursday downplayed the effect of a $245 billion physician funding bill in the chamber’s ongoing healthcare debate, describing the effort as only a routine adjustment.

Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.), Finance Committee Chairman Max Baucus (D-Mont.) and Banking Committee Chairman Chris Dodd (D-Conn.) said the bill would reverse expected cuts in Medicare payments to physicians, as the Senate has prevented nearly every year, and does not represent any significant shift in funding for the near-$1 trillion healthcare bill currently being crafted from two separate Senate versions.

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Reid said he met with the AARP on Wednesday to review legislative strategy to prevent the cuts.

“We address these physician payment cuts every year,” said Reid. “This is nothing different from what we’ve done before. This is a flawed formula and we know we have to fix the problem each and every year, so that the seniors are able to see their doctor. That’s what it’s all about … All we’re doing is wiping the slate clean by adjusting the baseline for what is current policy. It’s not new policy.”

The bill by Sen. Debbie Stabenow (D-Mich.), however, seeks a longer-term solution to a glitch in the “sustainable growth rate” (SGR) formula that dictates increases in Medicare payments, by providing funding for the next 10 years. It is also not funded, exposing Democrats to GOP charges of reckless spending in the healthcare debate.

Indeed, Republicans seized on the bill as proof of their argument that the Democratic healthcare efforts are adding to the deficit without offsetting spending cuts.

“It shows we’re landing some punches, that they finally realize they can’t pay for everything,” said Sen. Orrin Hatch (R-Utah), a member of the Health, Education, Labor and Pensions (HELP) Committee that passed a healthcare bill in July.

GOP Policy Committee Chairman John Thune (S.D.) said Reid’s comments are misleading because the physician bill is far more comprehensive than usual.

“They’re doing a long-term, ‘permanent’ fix, and that is unusual,” Thune said. “Obviously, they’re doing it to alleviate having to deal with that issue in healthcare reform because they know it will blow a big hole in this whole idea that it’s deficit-neutral. So I think it’s a very cynical ploy and clearly targeted at trying to make sure the doctors are not on board with medical malpractice reform as part of the whole healthcare debate. It looks to me like they’re trying to create a quid pro quo there.”

Some Democrats said they see both sides. Sen. Mark Pryor (D-Ark.), for example, said the physician bill represents a routine fix but does help Democrats keep the larger healthcare bill at a manageable cost.

“We’ve had to do Medicare fixes several times in the last few years,” Pryor said. “It is hard to pay for this — and of course I don’t hear any Republicans offer any ideas about how to pay for this — but I think Harry Reid and the Democrats are just trying to get this fixed for now. Whether we do it in a series of one-year fixes or if we do it like we’re doing it now, we’re going to get the same result.”

Dodd said he, Reid and Baucus decided late Wednesday to go forward with the longer-term strategy out of a sense of inevitability.

“It has to be dealt with — the SGR just has to be cleaned up,” Dodd said. “It’s been around too long.”

Also Thursday, asked about his own political future, Reid brushed off a question about whether a reelection loss in 2010 would be worth the cost of passing health reform. The majority leader plans to start running campaign ads on Friday and has pledged to raise and spend $25 million on his bid, but recent polls have shown him trailing two challengers. The Las Vegas Review-Journal also published a recent poll showing him with only a 38 percent favorability rating.

Reid said Nevada’s economy continues to suffer from the slumping housing market, but that he continues to meet with real estate industry leaders and that his internal polls remain strong.

“Everything is going well in Nevada,” he said. “We have an economy that’s very difficult in Nevada and we all know that, but it’s going to get better … All my polling numbers are fine and I’m continuing to do the best I can for the people of this country and the people of Nevada.”