WASHINGTON — Doctors would be temporarily spared a 21 percent cut in Medicare payments under a bill passed by Congress Thursday evening.
The measure would delay the cuts six months while lawmakers work on a more permanent solution. The bill now goes to President Barack Obama for his signature.
There was some urgency to approve the funding because Medicare announced last week it would begin processing claims it had already received for June at the lower rate. Lawmakers said some doctors have already stopped seeing new Medicare patients because of the cuts.
"It is currently impacting doctors, and most importantly, seniors and military service members," said Rep. Sander Levin, D-Mich., chairman of the House Ways and Means Committee.
Obama said he was pleased Congress passed the temporary fix but he urged lawmakers to work on a more permanent solution.
"Kicking these cuts down the road just isn't an adequate solution to the problem," Obama said in a statement. "It's untenable."
The funding had been part of a larger bill to provide extended unemployment benefits for laid off workers and provide states with billions of dollars to avert layoffs. Senate Republicans have been blocking the larger bill — in part because of their concerns it would add too much to the budget deficit — so Democratic leaders begrudgingly decided to pass the smaller, temporary fix for Medicare.
Republicans said majority Democrats have mismanaged Medicare through their inability to pass a more permanent fix. Democrats countered that few Republicans have been willing to vote for one.
"Physicians' practices, like most small businesses, are hurt by this dereliction of duty," said Rep. Wally Herger, R-Calif. "Senior citizens have been hurt as well."
Despite their political differences, House members came together to pass the bill Thursday by a vote of 417-1. Rep. George Miller, D-Calif., opposed the measure. The Senate had passed the bill on a voice vote last week.
The bill would delay the cuts until the end of November — after congressional elections — when lawmakers hope the political climate is better for passing a more permanent, and expensive, solution. The bill would increase payments to providers by 2.2 percent. The legislation, which costs about $6.5 billion, is paid for with a series of health care and pension changes that both Democrats and Republicans agreed to.
The Medicare cuts were required under a 1990s budget-cutting law that Congress has routinely waived. The latest extension expired May 31 after concerns about adding to the budget deficit held up the larger bill that also included unemployment benefits.
Medicare had been holding off on processing claims in the hopes lawmakers would act, but the agency said last week it could no longer do that without hurting doctors' cash flow.
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The additional Medicare funding will enable doctors, nurse practitioners, physical therapists and other providers who were already paid at the lower rate to be made whole. Many, however, will have to resubmit claims, adding to paperwork costs for both the providers and taxpayers.
Dr. Cecil B. Wilson, president of the American Medical Association, called the measure "a very temporary reprieve for seniors and baby boomers who rely on the promise of Medicare."
"It doesn't solve the Medicare mess Congress has created with a long series of short-term Medicare patches over the last decade," Wilson said in a statement. "Seniors are already experiencing access problems as a result of the complete congressional mismanagement of Medicare over the years."