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Congress acts to pull Medicare doc fee cuts

– With just hours to spare, Congress stepped Monday to finalize legislation to prevent doctors who treat Medicare patients from being hit with a 24 percent cut in their payments from the government.

The Senate’s 64-35 vote sends a measure to delay the cuts for a year to President Barack Obama, who’s expected to quickly sign it.

The $21 billion measure would stave off a 24 percent cut in Medicare reimbursements to doctors for a year and extend dozens of other expiring health care provisions such as higher payment rates for rural hospitals. The legislation is paid for by cuts to health care providers, but fully half of the cuts won’t kick in for 10 years.

It’s the 17th temporary “patch” to a broken payment formula that dates to 1997 and comes after lawmakers failed to reach a deal on financing a permanent fix.

The measure passed the House on Thursday, but only after top leaders in both parties engineered a voice vote when it became clear they were having difficulty mustering the two-thirds vote required to advance it under expedited procedures. Several top Democrats opposed the bill, saying it would take momentum away from the drive to permanently solve the payment formula problem.

There’s widespread agreement on bipartisan legislation to redesign the payment formula that would give doctors 0.5 percent annual fee increases and implement reforms aimed at giving doctors incentives to provide less costly care. But there’s no agreement on how to pay the approximately $140 billion cost of scrapping the old formula.

The heavily lobbied measure blends $16 billion to address Medicare physicians’ payments with about $5 billion more for a variety of other expiring health care provisions, like higher Medicare payments to rural hospitals and for ambulance rides in rural areas. The bill increases spending by $17 billion over the next three years, offsetting the cost with cuts to health care providers.

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