U.S. doctors push back on latest Republican move on Obamacare

by Reuters
Thursday, 13 March 2014 21:17 GMT

By David Morgan and Susan Cornwell

WASHINGTON, March 13 (Reuters) - U.S. doctors' biggest lobby group said on Thursday legislation intended to avoid a major Medicare pay cut for doctors had become a victim of partisan politics after Republicans tied it to their efforts to undermine Obamacare.

The American Medical Association, the biggest lobby group for U.S. doctors, called on lawmakers in the Senate and House of Representatives to resume the bipartisanship that early this year produced legislation for a permanent "doc fix" that would avoid once and for all a cut in traditional Medicare payments enshrined in a 1997 budget law.

The bipartisan deal quickly became mired in disagreements about how to come up with $138 billion to pay for the change.

House Republicans are poised for a Friday vote on a bill that would find the money by delaying the individual mandate penalty in President Barack Obama's healthcare law for five years, an action opposed by the White House and its Democratic allies in Congress.

The bill advanced on Thursday on a procedural vote, largely along party lines.

The AMA, which represents nearly 225,000 doctors and is one of the most powerful lobby groups in Washington, made public its frustrations after weeks of intensive behind-the-scenes efforts to forge bipartisan agreement on funding for the legislation.

The House bill has escalated concerns that lawmakers will be unable to find common ground before April 1, when doctors face a 24 percent Medicare pay cut under a mechanism known as the sustainable growth rate, or SGR.

"I am writing to profess our profound disappointment that a strong bipartisan, bicameral effort to repeal the Medicare sustainable growth rate has become a victim of partisan approaches to resolve budgetary issues," Dr. James Madara, AMA's chief executive officer, said on Thursday in a letter to House Speaker John Boehner and House Democratic leader Nancy Pelosi.

"We renew our call for all parties to engage in good faith, bipartisan efforts to address the budgetary implications of this bill and enact it. We stand ready to work with you in this endeavor."

AMA, which has led more than 600 other physician groups in a lobbying effort to secure a permanent doc fix, also expressed concern about a Senate Republican measure that would fund the replacement of the SGR by repealing the individual mandate.

Other physician organizations agreed. "It's a sad state of affairs," said Dr. Thomas Barber, a lobbyist with the American Academy of Orthopedic Surgeons, which represents 16,000 physicians.

"To see something that was supported by both parties get Shanghaied into the partisan politics of the day is very frustrating," he said.

Some doctors fear the recent mood of partisanship could limit lawmakers to a temporary fix lasting up to several months, which could postpone progress on a permanent solution into the next Congress, which takes office in January 2015.

The AMA says there have been 16 temporary SGR patches so far, costing taxpayers $154 billion. Securing an agreement on the doc fix is one of the association's highest priorities.

Republicans defended their latest assault on Obamacare as necessary in order to fund changes to the payments system for Medicare, the health insurance program for the elderly. Delaying the penalty for the individual mandate will save money, they said, because there will be fewer health insurance signups and so fewer taxpayer subsidies to enrollees.

"My friends on the other side of the aisle may disagree with having to pay for new spending, but this is an important reform that Republicans put in place when we reclaimed the majority in the 2010 elections," said Representative Michael Burgess, a leading Republican of the House Energy and Commerce Committee.

Democrats complained that the Republicans had used a rare manuever to drop the Obamacare language into the Medicare bill.

"I'm a strong supporter of providing adequate compensation to our physicians," said Representative Sheila Jackson Lee. "Why are we playing with them when in essence we know this is not going anywhere?" (Editing by Mohammad Zargham)

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