Conservatives hated that it’s expected to swell federal deficits over the coming decade. Liberals complained that it shortchanged health programs for children and women.
But after years of complaints and failed efforts, huge majorities of lawmakers from both parties banded together and Congress approved legislation permanently recasting how Medicare reimburses physicians.
Fueling the bill’s overwhelming support was backing from potent interest groups including the American Medical Association and AARP, the lobby for senior citizens.
Though AARP tried unsuccessfully to change the bill to ease costs for some Medicare recipients, CEO Jo Ann Jenkins hailed its passage as “momentous” Wednesday and said the measure will help Medicare beneficiaries “rest assured that they’ll be able to keep seeing their physicians each year.”
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A North Texas doctor in the House — Rep. Michael Burgess, R-Lewisville — has pushed for a permanent “doc fix” for years. Noting that he’s “worked to resolve this issue my entire congressional career,” Burgess called the final action “almost overwhelming.”
Burgess, who represents parts of north Tarrant County, has been a physician for more than 25 years.
The Senate gave final congressional approval late Tuesday to the $214 billion bipartisan measure, which rewrites how Medicare pays doctors for treating over 50 million elderly people. It also provides extra money for healthcare programs for children and low-income people, which Democrats coveted, and imposes higher costs on some higher-income Medicare beneficiaries, which Republicans touted as a victory.
Most immediately, the bill prevents a 21 percent cut in those physicians’ Medicare fees that would have hit home Wednesday when a federal agency planned to start making payments reflecting that reduction. That would have ensured a flood of complaints from doctors and senior citizens that lawmakers dearly wanted to avoid.
“This bipartisan bill will protect health coverage for millions of Americans, and I will be proud to sign it into law,” President Barack Obama said after the Senate vote.
Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., said, “Instead of kicking this important Medicare payment issue down the road again, a strong bipartisan majority in Congress voted to finally solve the problem and ensure that seniors on Medicare don’t lose access to their doctors.”
The Senate roll call was 92-8, with Republicans casting all eight “no” votes. Among presidential hopefuls, Sens. Ted Cruz, R-Texas, and Marco Rubio, R-Fla., voted against the bill, while Rand Paul, R-Ky., an ophthalmologist, and Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., supported it.
By an overwhelming 392-37, the House approved the legislation last month after the compromise was crafted by House Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio, and Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif.
The bill’s chief feature was its annulling of a 1997 law aimed at slowing Medicare growth that has repeatedly threatened deep cuts in reimbursements to physicians and led to threats by doctors to stop treating the program’s beneficiaries.
Staff writer John Gravois contributed to this report.