Democrats push back on doctors' lobby over possible Medicare payment cuts

Democratic leaders urging legislation to prevent looming cuts for Medicare doctors are pushing back against the doctors’ lobby for charging Congress with failing seniors.

The American Medical Association (AMA), the nation’s largest physicians group, has taken out a series of high-profile ads in recent weeks blasting Congress for taking its Memorial Day recess without first addressing an imminent 21 percent cut for doctors treating Medicare patients. Although the House last month passed a bill to delay the cut through 2011, the Senate left town without taking it up.

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“With access to health care for seniors and military families hanging in the balance, what did the U.S. Senate do?” one ad asked. “They took a vacation.”

The ads have stirred up some Senate Democratic leaders, who had tried to pass the bill last month, only to be thwarted by GOP budget hawks.

“We can only get the longer-term fix if we get Republicans on board,” said a Senate Democratic leadership aide. “Where’s the AMA in getting support from the Republicans?”

An AMA spokeswoman said Wednesday the group doesn’t play party favorites; it simply wants a permanent fix to the physician pay trouble that’s become a perennial thorn in the side of doctors and lawmakers alike. Toward that end, the AMA is pressuring members of both parties, the spokeswoman said.

Under the Democrats’ proposal, doctors facing the 21 percent cut this month would instead see a 2.2 percent update through 2010 and an additional 1 percent update for 2011. The provision is a part of the tax extenders bill Democrats are considering this week.

At issue is not the policy itself — which both parties support — but whether the new costs, estimated at $23 billion, should be offset elsewhere in the budget. The Democrats’ proposal would rely on deficit spending to cover the tab, while Republicans are insisting that the new expense be paid for.

Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) on Tuesday called for an even longer “doc fix,” one delaying the cut through 2013. But budget hawks are sure to balk. The 10-year cost for the broader fix is $65 billion.

This post was updated from its original version at 5:47 p.m.