Medicare doctors' pay plan rejected in U.S. Senate

Wed Oct 21, 2009 4:38pm EDT

* Measure would have added $250 billion to U.S. debt

* Doctors face 21 pct cut in payments unless Congress acts

WASHINGTON Oct 21 (Reuters) - U.S. Senate Democratic leaders dropped a proposal to boost Medicare payments to doctors after the bill failed on Wednesday to muster enough support to overcome procedural roadblocks.

Republicans and a number of Democrats balked at the measure because it would have added $250 billion to the nation's debt over 10 years at a time when the budget deficit hit a record $1.4 trillion this year.

Democratic leaders had hoped for a quick vote this week to approve the Medicare proposal, a move that would help build support from doctors and the elderly for a sweeping healthcare reform. Doctors face a 21 percent cut in payments in January if Congress fails to act.

Only 47 senators, all Democrats, voted in favor of bringing the measure up for debate, well short of the 60 needed to advance the bill in the 100-member chamber.

Doctors are increasingly reluctant to take on patients under Medicare, the government health program for the elderly, because of what critics say is an outdated reimbursement system.

Republicans argue the change in doctors' Medicare reimbursements should be considered as part of the broader healthcare reform legislation.

The cost of higher reimbursements would make it difficult for Democrats to stay within the $900 billion 10-year budget limit for healthcare reform backed by President Barack Obama.

The bill would have scrapped the current reimbursement formula for Medicare and prevented scheduled cuts in payments to doctors.

But Republicans and some Democrats refused to support the measure because it included no spending cuts to pay for it.

"Americans are increasingly alarmed by the expansion of our national debt and this spending binge that we're putting on the national credit card," said Senate Republican Leader Mitch McConnell.

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.

Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid said the Senate would tackle a long-term Medicare reimbursement proposal once Congress acts on the broader healthcare reform.

The healthcare reform measure passed by the Senate Finance Committee included a one-year "fix" that would prevent next year's 21 percent payment cut for doctors.

(Reporting by Donna Smith; Editing by David Alexander and Jackie Frank

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