* Medicare payment fix would cost billions
* Without fix doctors face a 30 percent pay cut
* Congress avoided issue for years
By Donna Smith
WASHINGTON, Oct 12 The congressional "super
committee" charged with reducing U.S. budget deficits is
considering tackling a measure that could make their job even
harder by preventing a steep pay cut for Medicare doctors.
The bipartisan panel that has been tasked with finding at
least $1.2 trillion in budget savings over 10 years has a
"strong interest" in taking up the doctor payment issue,
sources familiar with panel discussions said on Wednesday.
But doing so would cost hundreds of billions of dollars and
thus complicate deficit-reduction work.
The sources stressed that the panel has not yet decided
whether to include a so-called "doc fix" in its package of
deficit reduction recommendations, which is due by Nov. 23.
If Congress fails to act by the end of the year, doctors
treating patients enrolled in the Medicare healthcare program
for the elderly and disabled will be hit with a 30 percent pay
cut in January. The pay cut is rooted in a 14-year-old
deficit-reduction law aimed at reining in growing Medicare
payments to doctors.
But a steep pay cut in January would make it extremely
difficult for Medicare patients to find doctors willing to see
them, healthcare advocates have warned.
FEAR OF RUNNING OUT OF OFFSETS
The problem for the super committee is that the 10-year
cost of fixing the "sustainable growth rate" Medicare pay
formula is about $300 billion and growing. The panel would have
to make up that difference through additional spending cuts or
tax increases beyond the $1.2 trillion goal.
The Medicare doc fix could help the panel sell its final
package of recommendations to healthcare advocacy groups and a
medical community who are worried about additional Medicare
cuts on top of the $500 billion that were included in President
Barack Obama's healthcare overhaul last year.
Dozens of doctors' groups, including the American Medical
Association, have urged the super committee of 6 Democrats and
6 Republicans to repeal the current Medicare payment formula.
One healthcare industry lobbyist said if the super
committee fails to tackle the Medicare payment issue, it will
be all the more difficult to get Congress to act by the end of
the year. In the current fiscal environment, every spending
increase has to be offset by a spending cut or tax hike
elsewhere in the budget.
"After this (super committee) process is over, there won't
be anything to pay for the doc fix in terms of coming up with
offsets," said one industry lobbyist.
For years Congress has put off permanently addressing the
payment formula in order to make long-term deficit projections
look rosier than they actually were. Instead, lawmakers
resorted to a series of last minute temporary "fixes."
Doctors argue that the cost of delay is growing. "We
estimate additional short-term interventions will double the
cost to approximately $600 billion by 2016," according to a
letter to the super committee signed by dozens of doctors'
groups, including the American Medical Association.
It is not clear the panel will decide on a permanent change
in the payment formula. One source suggested the panel could
even consider something less than its 10-year budget