Medicare doctor pay plan hits Senate snag

WASHINGTON Tue Oct 20, 2009 6:38pm EDT

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WASHINGTON (Reuters) - A proposal to boost Medicare payments to doctors ran into trouble in the U.S. Senate on Tuesday as Republicans and some Democrats balked at adding $250 billion to skyrocketing U.S. deficits over the next decade.

Senator Richard Durbin said Democratic leaders lack the votes needed to overcome procedural hurdles in the 100 member Senate. "We don't have 60 votes," said Durbin, the second leading Senate Democrat. "We need support from Republicans."

Democratic leaders had hoped for a quick vote this week on the Medicare proposal, a move that would help build support from doctors and the elderly for a sweeping healthcare reform plan backed by President Barack Obama.

Republicans argued that the bill by Democratic Senator Debbie Stabenow would add to soaring deficits and did not go far enough to make sure that future payments to doctors from Medicare, the government health program for the elderly, keeps up with increases in the cost of living.

"That increase should at least keep pace with inflation, or we're not going to have enough physicians available to treat Medicare patients," said Republican Senator Jon Kyl.

Also some Democrats, including Senate Budget Committee Chairman Kent Conrad, oppose the bill because it does not include any measures to offset the cost at a time when the U.S. budget deficit has reached a record $1.4 trillion this year.

Without congressional action, doctors treating Medicare patients would face a 21 percent cut in payments next year because of what critics say is an outdated payment formula.

For years Congress has been approving temporary "fixes" to avoid Medicare cuts to doctors but has not tackled a permanent solution because of the impact it would have on long-term budget projections.

Stabenow argued it was time to do away with the outdated payment formula and lay the groundwork for a new reimbursement system, which under the proposed healthcare reform would reward quality of care and not just the number of services performed.

Durbin said Democratic leaders thought they could count on some Republican support for the Medicare proposal and accused the opposition party of using the issue to try to derail the broader healthcare reform.

"That's what this is all about," Durbin said. "It's another way to slow down the process and stop healthcare reform."

Republicans said they support boosting Medicare payments to doctors, but oppose adding so much red ink to the deficit -- $300 billion over 10 years when interest costs are taken into account.

"I thought this whole healthcare debate was about getting costs down, and yet the majority wants to begin with a bill that would add $300 billion to the deficit," said Senate Republican Leader Mitch McConnell.

(Editing by David Alexander and Sandra Maler)

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