WASHINGTON - Congressional leaders agreed Wednesday on legislation to avert a threatened 24 percent cut in fees to doctors who treat Medicare patients, and said votes were likely in both houses before Monday's deadline.
The legislation would prevent the cut for 12 months. The heavily-lobbied measure also contains numerous other health care provisions of interest to doctors, hospitals, drug companies and other health care providers.
The House was on track to vote Thursday under special expedited procedures that require a two-thirds vote to pass, and there was at least some uncertainty that the measure would advance; Senate action also was uncertain.
Because of a flawed formula dating to 1997, Medicare doctors are threatened with big fee cuts almost every year.
After allowing a 4.8 percent Medicare fee cut to take effect in 2002, Congress has since stepped 16 times to prevent the cuts and must act again by midnight Monday to avoid them this time.
When Congress has blown the deadline in the past, Medicare has dealt with the problem by simply delaying processing payments until the formula had been raised.
Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., is likely to seek to speed the measure through the Senate as early as Thursday, but it would take cooperation from all 100 senators to make that happen.
The move for yet another temporary fix comes as efforts for permanently solving the recurring Medicare problem are foundering. There is widespread support for bipartisan legislation to repair, once and for all, the broken Medicare formula but there is no agreement on how to bear the 10-year, $140 billion cost.
"The permanent fix that's being talked about is a good fix, and there's an agreement - bipartisan, bicameral agreement on the long-term fix," House Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio, said.
"What there isn't agreement on is, 'how are we going to pay for it?'" He said there would be a vote on the temporary fix Thursday in the House, where some senior Democrats were still pressing for a permanent solution.
New Senate Finance Committee Chairman Ron Wyden, D-Ore., wants to keep working on a permanent solution. He proposes using savings from lower costs for operations in Afghanistan. Republicans are demanding savings from President Barack Obama's health care law. The resulting impasse has left lawmakers little alternative than to move another temporary fix.
"If you just keep going with these temporary solutions, you waste time, you waste money, you threaten the access for seniors to their doctors," Wyden said.
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