House Democrat presses HHS for details on 2013 budget cuts

Both doctor pay cuts under the Medicare SGR and programwide automatic cuts under the Budget Control Act are scheduled to take effect in January.

By Jennifer Lubell — Posted June 21, 2012

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A senior Democrat on the House Energy and Commerce Committee wants more details from the Obama administration on how upcoming budget cuts will impact federal medical research priorities and other health care programs.

The failure of a congressional “supercommittee” created under the Budget Control Act in 2011 to reach agreement on a plan to cut federal budget deficits triggers $1.2 trillion in automatic spending cuts over 10 years, divided between defense and nondefense spending, starting in 2013.


Rep. Edward Markey (D, Mass.)

The first round of these cuts brings with them “reductions in billions of dollars to critical medical research and development, access to new medical treatments, and other health and well-being programs in the jurisdiction of the Dept. of Health and Human Services,” Rep. Edward Markey (D, Mass.) said in a statement accompanying a June 7 letter to HHS Secretary Kathleen Sebelius.

Unless the act is repealed or amended, federal agencies dedicated to research, health, and community development soon face a 7.8% cut in their budgets, Markey wrote in his letter to Sebelius. Citing a report released by Research!America, a research advocacy organization based in Alexandria, Va., he said the cuts would mean a $3.6 billion loss for medical research priorities in 2013, the first year of the budget sequestration process. Research into diseases such as Alzheimer's, autism, childhood leukemia and cerebral palsy could be delayed. Cuts of this magnitude also threaten to slow drug discovery and approval times, Markey wrote.

He indicated that HHS has some flexibility as to how the cuts are applied through departmental funding transfers, reprogramming, personnel decisions and other actions.

The Budget Control Act exempted Medicare patient benefits and the Medicaid program from the automatic cuts, and it capped the total amount that can be cut from Medicare to 2% per year. The panel also was unable to reach agreement on a proposal to stop a more than 30% reduction in doctor pay under Medicare's sustainable growth rate formula, a cut that will come on top of any pay reductions mandated by the budget control statute.

“Even our seniors are not shielded from the impact of these cuts,” Markey wrote in his letter. “Their doctors face a cut in Medicare payments of $11 billion in 2013 alone, making it increasingly harder for doctors to treat Medicare patients, let alone to see new ones.”

Outgoing AMA President Peter W. Carmel, MD, expressed disappointment in 2011 that the supercommittee left the SGR cuts intact while triggering “robotic, across-the-board spending cuts that do not address critical structural problems in the federal budget.”

In his letter, Markey wrote: “Every family is one doctor's visit away from needing the promise of [National Institutes of Health] research. Every senior deserves to have access to medical care from the doctor of their choice. I believe Congress and the American public would benefit from a detailed understanding of the harm these mandatory cuts pose to vital health programs upon which millions of Americans around the nation rely.”

A copy of Markey's letter can be viewed online (link).

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