WASHINGTON The Senate on Wednesday agreed to avert a 25 percent pay cut for doctors treating patients covered by the Medicare health program for the elderly.
On a voice vote, the Senate approved a one-year "fix" to the doctor's payment formula that would stop a scheduled cut in physicians pay in January that advocates for the elderly said would have made it harder for Medicare patients to get medical care.
The measure now goes to the House of Representatives for anticipated final approval, which would clear the way for President Barack Obama to sign it into law.
The House and Obama must act quickly since the pay cut is set to go into effect on January 1.
"More than 80 percent of our members -- whether Republican, Democrat or independent -- are concerned that a Medicare pay cut will threaten access to their doctors," said Nancy LeaMond, an executive vice president for AARP, which represents millions of elderly Americans.
The bill was a compromise worked out by Democratic and Republican Senate leaders as lawmakers make a final push to complete the legislative work of the current Congress by the end of next week. A new Congress will be seated in January when Republicans will take control of the House.
The $15 billion cost of the one-year pay fix for doctors treating Medicare and military Tricare patients will be paid for by changing a provision on recouping excess subsidy payments in the healthcare legislation enacted this year.
The government will be able to recover more excess insurance subsidy payments to individuals than provided under the existing law. The change will save $19 billion over the next 10 years, according to congressional estimates.
Obama backed the legislation but said it was time to enact a more permanent fix in the Medicare payment formula for doctors.
"This agreement is an important step forward to stabilize Medicare, but our work is far from finished. For too long, we have confronted this reoccurring problem with temporary fixes and stop-gap measures." Obama said in a statement.
Doctors say the payment formula is outdated and would result in steep pay cuts that would discourage physicians from treating Medicare patients. But changing the formula would add to long-term deficits. As a result Congress for years has resorted to a series of short-term fixes that helped mask budget realities and made the long-term budget numbers look better.
(Reporting by Donna Smith; editing by Chris Wilson)