Medicare Payment Bill High on U.S. Senate Agenda
Wed Sep 4,10:45 AM ET
By Julie Rovner

WASHINGTON (Reuters Health) - The US Senate returned to the Capitol Tuesday for one last work session before the November elections, with members vowing quick action on a bill to boost payments to doctors, hospitals, nursing homes and other Medicare health care providers.



Senators said the so-called "giveback" bill could also help restart debate over a Medicare prescription drug program, which foundered in late July with members unable to agree on how to help seniors citizens pay for their increasingly expensive medications.

"We've got to do Medicare givebacks," Senate Finance Committee Chairman Max Baucus (D-MT) told reporters Tuesday. Baucus said the committee could meet to work on what is expected to be a $30-40 billion Medicare package as soon as next week.

Among those clamoring for more Medicare money are the nation's physicians.

A "glitch" in Medicare's payment formula reduced physician fees 5.4% starting last January. If the formula is not fixed, physicians face a similar-sized cut next January. On Tuesday the American Medical Association released an online survey that found nearly a quarter of physicians have either limited the number of Medicare patients they will treat or plan to impose limits in the next six months. A survey released last month by the beneficiary group the Medicare Rights Center also found patients having an increasingly difficult time finding a doctor who will accept Medicare payment.

"Physicians want to serve America's seniors, but they simply cannot afford to accept an unlimited number of new Medicare patients into their practices while facing continued payment cuts," said AMA immediate-past president Dr. Richard Corlin.

The House included $30 billion of Medicare payment changes--including an AMA-backed "fix" to the physician payment formula--as part of the larger Medicare prescription drug bill it passed in June. But the drug bill the Senate passed in July would not address any Medicare issues. Instead, the Senate's drug bill would make it easier for generic drugmakers to get their products to market.

During consideration of the generic drug bill, senators defeated four separate Medicare drug proposals when each fell short of the required 60-vote majority needed under the chamber's budget rules.

But backers of a drug benefit say the Medicare provider payment bill may give them another opportunity. "It's a vehicle to offer if we get an agreement," said Sen. John Breaux (D-LA), who is leading a group of moderate Senate Republicans and Democrats still trying to work out a compromise Medicare drug benefit. Staff members for the senators met during the August recess to try to work toward a plan that could win the required Senate majority.

Senators also said that boosting Medicare funds for providers while ignoring the needs of beneficiaries could be dangerous for members up for re-election. Passing a giveback bill but not a drug package "would be very difficult to explain" to voters, said Sen. Olympia Snowe (R-ME).

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