Doctors and their Medicare patients are breathing a sigh of relief, after the Senate voted last night by a vote of 78-19 to grant a 30-day reprieve on cuts in Medicare payments to physicians. The stopgap bill, which passed the House last week, also included unemployment benefits for the long-term jobless and funding for highway programs. President Obama signed it into law late Tuesday.
The so called “doc fix”—part of a larger package reviving popular tax cuts and extending jobless benefits—had been blocked for days by Republican Sen. Jim Bunning of Kentucky, causing the government to furlough highway workers and end some unemployment benefits. The automatic 21 percent cut in doctors’ fees, contained in a 1997 law designed to rein in Medicare spending, took effect March 1. Congress usually acts before the automatic triggering of the cuts, but Bunning wanted to force Democrats to find a way to finance the bill so that it wouldn’t add to the federal deficit.
If payments are unduly low, doctors will begin turning away Medicare patients, experts say. While the rate cut would have affected all types of physicians, already-beleaguered primary care doctors would have been among the hardest hit because their average income is lower than that of specialists, and they tend to see a lot of Medicare patients.
The last-minute vote to delay the cuts until April 1 was criticized by American Medical Association president J. James Rohack. “This vicious cycle of short-term delays that increase the size of the cut and the cost of reform for American taxpayers must come to an end,” he said in a prepared statement, calling on the Senate to permanently repeal the “flawed Medicare physician payment formula.”
Candy Sagon is a writer with the AARP Bulletin.