Despite reservations, CT senators join in approving ‘doc fix’ bill

Washington – While they had reservations about some provisions of the bill, Sens. Richard Blumenthal and Chris Murphy joined an overwhelming majority in the U.S. Senate to approve a bill preventing a 21 percent cut in Medicare fees for doctors.

The 92-8 vote late Tuesday, on the brink of a deadline, ends a painful ritual that usually occurred every year to pass legislation fixing a 20-year-old “sustainable growth formula” that set Medicare doctor fees based on economic growth.

The formula worked for a few years but eventually resulted in pay decreases, angering doctors. Instead of a temporary fix, Congress has now moved to permanently fix the program, at a cost of about $200 billion over 10 years.

“Stick a fork in it, it’s finally done,” House Energy and Commerce Committee Chairman Fred Upton, R-Mich., said in in a statement.

The House, with the support of all five Connecticut members of the chamber, approved the “doc fix” bill last month. Connecticut’s doctors also lobbied vigorously in support of the bill.

The Senate failed to act before a March 31 deadline. So Medicare doctor fees dropped 21 percent on April 1. But the Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services (CMS) took steps to limit the impact of that sharp decrease by holding claims dated on or after April 1, 2015.

CMS said it would be forced to release the claims on April 15 and pay them at the reduced rate. President Obama is expected to sign the doc fix bill on Wednesday to prevent that.

The Medicare Access and CHIP Reauthorization Act of 2015 also funds community health centers for two years, so House Republicans included language in the bill that would prevent using federal funds to those clinics for abortions.

The anti-abortion language, known as the Hyde Amendment, is included every year in spending bills and sunsets at the end of each fiscal year. Democrats like Blumenthal objected to applying the restriction to the multi-year “doc-fix” bill that would extend the Hyde amendment into the next Congress and the next administration.

Blumenthal and other lawmakers wanted to strip the abortion language out of the bill.

Connecticut’s Democratic senators also had another concern.

The “doc fix” bill also extends the Children’s Health Insurance Program for two years past its current Sept. 30 expiration date at a cost of $5 billion. CHIP provides basic funding for the HUSKYB program that pays for health care for about 13,530 children in Connecticut who live in moderate-income households .

Blumenthal and Murphy preferred a four-year rather than two-year CHIP authorization. To satisfy the concerns of lawmakers like Blumenthal and Murphy, amendments were considered that would address the abortion language and extend CHIP authorization for four years.

Approval of the amendments required 60 votes, however, and they failed to garner the needed support.

“For over a decade, this flawed Medicare payment policy has been a source of frequent anxiety for both doctors and patients. This bipartisan compromise finally gives certainty to Connecticut seniors and doctors that Medicare rates will be stable into the future while also extending funding for community health centers and Connecticut’s children enrolled in HUSKY,” Murphy said.

Blumenthal said he was “pleased to join an overwhelming, bipartisan majority of my colleagues to fix Medicare’s broken reimbursement system. With this legislation, healthcare for our seniors is no longer threatened, and there is no longer uncertainty for the doctors who treat them. Senior citizens and their doctors will rightfully have the resources and support they need to ensure quality care is delivered and received.”

The Connecticut Medical Society thanked the state’s delegation for voting for the measure, saying it would end “thirteen years of expiring patches, potential payment cuts, and worries about access to care.”

Approval of the bill also helps state finances.

CHIP is a joint federal-state program, with Connecticut paying 45 percent of the cost and the federal government paying 65 percent. But, as of Oct. 1, the doc fix bill would dramatically cut Connecticut’s share to 12 percent while hiking the federal government’s share to 88 percent.

Although it was lauded as a rare bipartisan accomplishment, there was opposition to the bill.

To help pay for the measure, the bill makes Medicare beneficiaries earning more than $133,000 a year pay a higher share of premium costs, a provision the AARP opposed.

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