Medicare pay cut begins but likely to be short-lived

The AMA blasts Congress for leaving before keeping doctor pay at 2005 levels.

By David Glendinning — Posted Jan. 16, 2006

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Washington -- Lawmakers ran out of time to prevent a 4.4% Medicare cut from going into effect for doctors Jan. 1, but congressional aides expect quick action on the cut within weeks.

The House adjourned late last month without tying up loose ends on a massive budget-cutting bill that would have kept doctor reimbursements at 2005 levels. Physician groups, such as the American Medical Association, decried the leadership's decision not to recall lawmakers to Capitol Hill to beat the year-end deadline.

"Congress has failed to fulfill its responsibilities to Medicare patients and their physicians," said AMA President J. Edward Hill, MD. "On Jan. 1, the 2006 Medicare physician payment cut begins, and the AMA is deeply concerned that this will harm seniors' access to physician care."

But aides predicted that the reduction would be short-lived. The House approved a nearly identical budget bill before its holiday break that included the Medicare freeze, but because the Senate made several unrelated last-minute changes during its consideration of the legislation, the measure needed one more vote in the House before heading to President Bush. Since the Senate's alterations are relatively minor, House leaders expect to be able to approve the amended version soon after returning to work Jan. 31, the aides said.

Nevertheless, critics of the cuts to Medicaid, Medicare and other entitlement programs plan to renew their assault on the bill to win enough votes against passage. The original version squeaked through the House by a pre-dawn vote of 212-206.

If lawmakers pass the bill again, the Medicare cut likely will be reversed retroactive to the start of the year, meaning physicians will be made whole for any reduced paychecks they might get in the interim. The AMA called for this action.

Physician groups urged the Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services to instruct carriers to pay doctors 2005 rates in the meantime, based on probable congressional approval of the freeze in early February. But a CMS spokesman said the agency likely would not do this.

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