Healthcare lobby looks to jobs bill as vehicle for Medicare fixes

Lobbyists for healthcare interests are eyeing the Senate jobs bill as a vehicle for several key priorities left behind when healthcare reform stalled.
 
A handful of provisions affecting physicians, hospitals, nursing homes and other Medicare providers expired Jan. 1 and the clock is running down on others. With healthcare reform on the back burner as Congress turns to jobs, the budget and other matters, provider lobbyists are anxious for an alternative — and the jobs bill that will hit the Senate floor next week is an appealing target.
 

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Senate Finance Committee Chairman Max Baucus (D-Mont.) is putting together the so-called extenders package, he said during a hearing Wednesday. A spokesman for the House Ways and Means Committee confirmed the lower chamber is working on a similar measure. Congressional aides declined to offer any details about what provisions will be included or when the package will move forward.
 
Nursing homes and rehabilitation therapy providers, along with patient groups, are pushing legislation to undo a hard-dollar cap on Medicare coverage of physical, speech and occupational therapy. Hospitals are seeking to restore special payments to large rural and small urban hospitals. Physicians also are pursuing the reinstatement of bonuses to rural doctors.
 
Both the House- and Senate-passed healthcare reform bills included fixes to those issues but Democratic leaders set aside plans to immediately advance that legislation after Sen. Scott Brown (R-Mass.) won election last month, depriving Democrats of their filibuster-proof majority.
 

Doctors are also clamoring for action to prevent a 21 percent cut in their Medicare payments that looms March 1. Doctors strongly favor a permanent solution to the flawed formula that calculates their fees and are stiffly resisting a one-year fix, which has been Congress’s favored approach since 2002. But with little time remaining until the pay cut kicks in, physician groups are eyeing an extension of current rates for a few months to give Congress time to act on the issue, which is on track to be handled separately from healthcare reform.
 
Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) plans to begin debate on the jobs measure, which could include other healthcare-related measures such as an extension of subsidies to the newly unemployed for COBRA health insurance. Baucus and Finance Committee ranking member Chuck Grassley (R-Iowa) are working jointly on the tax cuts in the bill, which Reid hopes will lead to Republican support for the measure.