Carolyn Kaster, Associated Press
WASHINGTON — The House on Thursday passed legislation to give doctors a reprieve from a looming 24 percent cut in their payments from Medicare.
The bill passed on a surprise voice vote and advanced to the Senate, which hopes to pass it before a Monday deadline. The vote came after an hourlong delay amid doubt that the measure could muster the two-thirds vote required under fast-track procedures.
The voice vote was engineered by Majority Leader Eric Cantor, R-Va., with cooperation from senior Democrats such as Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi of California.
Several leading Democrats opposed the bill, saying it would set back efforts to find a permanent fix for a flawed Medicare payment formula that has bedeviled lawmakers for more than a decade. There is widespread support for legislation to permanently solve the problem but no agreement on how to pay for it.
The measure represents the 17th time Congress has stepped in with a temporary fix to a poorly designed Medicare fee formula that dates to a 1997 budget law. The House vote came after efforts to permanently fix the formula appeared to have fizzled. Democrats such as Reps. Frank Pallone of New Jersey and Jim McDermott of Washington said they would oppose the measure because it would hurt the effort to find a permanent solution to the problem. Pelosi, however, weighed in to support the legislation.
The heavily lobbied legislation also contains numerous other health care provisions of interest to doctors, hospitals, drug companies and other health care providers.
Timing in the Senate was uncertain, although there was a lot of pressure to act by a Monday midnight deadline. Otherwise, Medicare would stop processing payments to doctors until the payment fix was enacted.
Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., was likely to seek to speed the measure through the Senate as early as Thursday, but it would take cooperation from all 100 senators to make that happen.
There is widespread support for bipartisan legislation to repair, once and for all, the broken Medicare formula, but there is no agreement on how to bear the 10-year, $140 billion cost.
"The permanent fix that's being talked about is a good fix, and there's an agreement — bipartisan, bicameral agreement on the long-term fix," House Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio, said. "What there isn't agreement on is, 'How are we going to pay for it?'" He said the House would vote Thursday on the temporary fix.
The powerful American Medical Association and a host of other health care provider groups weighed in against the measure, saying it would undermine the drive for a permanent solution.
"The endless cycle of short-term remedies that serve to support a failed policy are no longer acceptable," said the AMA and other groups in a letter to lawmakers.
"A vote 'no' today is a vote against seniors," said Rep. Joe Pitts, R-Pa. "We are not voting for the AMA today."
New Senate Finance Committee Chairman Ron Wyden, D-Ore., wants to keep working on a permanent solution. He proposes using savings from lower costs for operations in Afghanistan. Republicans are demanding savings from President Barack Obama's health care law. The resulting impasse has left lawmakers little alternative other than to pass another temporary fix.
"If you just keep going with these temporary solutions, you waste time, you waste money, you threaten the access for seniors to their doctors," Wyden said. "And the reality is, the patches, as they are called, they're not free either. You still have to come up with the money."
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