Senate fails to stop 21% Medicare pay cut -- for now

CMS says claims from physicians will be held until March 15 to give the Senate more time to act. The AMA predicts a "Medicare meltdown."

By Chris Silva — Posted Feb. 26, 2010

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The Senate adjourned for the weekend on Feb. 26 without approving a measure that would have stopped a 21% Medicare physician pay cut from taking effect March 1.

The House on Feb. 25 had passed legislation that would have extended a number of expiring unemployment benefits and delayed the Medicare cut until March 28. But Senate Democratic leaders were repeatedly blocked in their attempts to obtain unanimous consent to pass the "extenders" bill. Sen. Jim Bunning (R, Ky.) objected each time on the basis that the $10 billion total cost of the bill -- roughly $1 billion of which would go toward the doctor pay freeze -- would add to the federal deficit.

The American Medical Association, which has been pushing lawmakers for a permanent repeal of the formula that helps determine Medicare pay, said the Senate had failed Medicare beneficiaries and opened the door to a "Medicare meltdown."

"Our message to the U.S. Senate is stop playing games with Medicare patients and the physicians who care for them," said AMA President J. James Rohack, MD. "It is shocking that the Senate would abandon our most vulnerable patients, making them the collateral damage of their procedural games."

Although the Senate missed its chance to prevent the cut from initially taking effect, the pay reduction might be short-lived. The Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services started informing physicians on Feb. 26 that contractors will hold Medicare physician claims for 10 business days, starting March 1, to give lawmakers more time to act. That means if Congress and the White House enact a delay before the end of the two weeks and make it retroactive to March 1, then doctors shouldn't expect to see any Medicare checks come back with a 21% cut applied.

If Senate Democrats are unable to come to an agreement with Bunning, they will need to seek approval of the bill through the regular order, a process that takes more time than a unanimous consent approval.

A spokesman for Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D, Nev.) said the upper chamber will reconvene the week of March 1 to consider a bill with longer-term extenders than the 30-day measure. The details of the new bill were not immediately available, but an earlier version of a Senate jobs bill included a provision that would have delayed the Medicare physician pay cut until Oct. 1.

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