* White House strongly supports Medicare payment bill
* AMA links healthcare overhaul support to payment boost
* House set to vote on Medicare payment boost Thursday
By Donna Smith
WASHINGTON, Nov 18 (Reuters) - The White House on Wednesday urged Congress to pass a bill to boost Medicare payments to doctors, a step that could shore up support from an influential doctors' lobbying group for a broad healthcare overhaul.
The legislation would avert a 21 percent cut in doctors' payments next year and establish a more generous formula for such payments under the government health insurance plan for the elderly, a key issue for U.S. doctors.
The bill has been endorsed by the 250,000-member American Medical Association, whose backing is key to sweeping healthcare reform sought by President Barack Obama. The Democratic-led U.S. House of Representatives is expected to pass the bill on Thursday.
The AMA's past opposition to healthcare reform helped sink previous overhaul attempts.
The White House issued a statement that said it strongly endorsed the Medicare payment legislation, saying the $210 billion 10-year measure would ensure that the elderly on Medicare and military families on the TRICARE military health plan continue to have access to doctors.
The AMA linked its support for the healthcare reform bill approved by the House on Nov. 7 to passage of the Medicare payment legislation, and it wants the Senate, which failed to bless similar legislation in October, to act as well.
OBLIGATIONS OF CONGRESS
Nancy Nielsen, a former AMA president who spoke to reporters on behalf of the group, left open the possibility that the organization might withdraw its support for broader reform if lawmakers "fail to fulfill" their promise on Medicare to ensure the elderly have access to doctors.
"The real issue is can everybody believe Congress in terms of what it's trying to do if they won't fulfill existing obligations," she told reporters this week.
The AMA endorsement gave the House bill a major boost and any decision by it to back away from the healthcare revamp would make it more difficult if not impossible for Democrats to pass a sweeping reform.
The Senate is expected to begin debate this week on its version of healthcare reform and Senate Democratic leader Harry Reid is struggling to muster the 60 votes needed to advance legislation in the 100-member chamber.
Senate Democrats said the Medicare bill will have to take a back seat to the broad overhaul bill, which includes a temporary "fix" that will avert next year's pay cut.
Democratic Senator Debbie Stabenow, who sponsored a Senate version of the bill, said senators would tackle the long-term Medicare pay bill after it votes on healthcare reform.
The healthcare overhaul may not be enacted into law until early next year. But Stabenow said Congress would act retroactively to boost doctors' reimbursements.
For years Congress voted for temporary "fixes" to the Medicare payment formula to prevent deep pay cuts. The House bill would put an end to that annual ritual and put in place a new formula that aims to better reward primary care doctors and provide for a more realistic growth in healthcare costs.
The House bill will likely attract some Republican votes, but most are expected to oppose the measure because the 10-year price tag is unpaid for at a time of record budget deficits.
"We need to fix the doctor payment formula, but we should not borrow $210 billion from our children's future to pay doctors today," said Republican Representative Dave Camp. (Editing by Mohammad Zargham)