House passes one-year doc fix

The U.S. House of Representatives voted Thursday to delay a scheduled 25 percent Medicare payment cut for one year. If President Obama signs the bill as expected, it will mark the sixth time this year that Medicare cuts have been staved off.

The move drew praise from doctors and patient groups who worried that the cuts could make physicians less likely to treat Medicare patients.

The vote came as doctors decide whether to enroll in Medicare for the next year. More than three-quarters of Connecticut physicians responding to a recent survey said they would limit their participation in Medicare, or even opt out of it, if rate cuts took effect. More than half said they would consider doing so even if Congress delayed the cut but didn’t permanently fix the formula behind them.

The formula, known as the sustainable growth rate, was established in 1997 as a way to limit the growth of Medicare spending. But Congress has repeatedly overridden the cuts it calls for using temporary patches. Many doctors have become frustrated by the uncertainty caused by the repeated threats of cuts.

The rate cut would also affect TRICARE, which covers members of the military and their families.

Members of the state’s congressional delegation got more than 5,300 calls and e-mails on the issue, according to AARP Connecticut, which has been advocating for the year-long fix as a way to give Congress time to craft a lasting solution.

“The bipartisan bill passed today is an important step to give seniors peace of mind about their health care, but the work is not over,” AARP Connecticut State Director Brenda Kelley said in a statement. “When the new Congress meets next year, lawmakers must find a long-term solution and end the annual patches that jeopardize access to doctors for the country’s seniors.”

The Connecticut State Medical Society was similarly pleased with the vote, which President Dr. David S. Katz said removes the uncertainty doctors and patients were facing.

“We urge lawmakers to use this time to enact real reform to the Medicare payment formula for physicians that is tied to actual economic conditions,” he said in a statement.

U.S. Rep. Joe Courtney, D-2nd District, said Congress gave the Medicare system “a reprieve.” But he said he was frustrated that Congress can’t eliminate the formula altogether.

“It’s a formula that will never go into full operation,” he said. “We should just get rid of it. It’s bad policy and obviously terribly politics,” since Congress keeps blocking it from going into effect.

But finding a long-term fix, even with a year to do it, probably won’t be easy. A 2009 estimate by the Congressional Budget Office projected that it could cost $300 billion over 10 years to repeal the Medicare payment cuts.