Senate agrees to delay huge cut in Medicare payments to doctors

The Senate agreed Thursday to postpone for a month a giant cut in Medicare payments to doctors that had been scheduled to take effect Dec. 1.

The bipartisan deal is expected to clear the House, sparing physicians a 23% fee cut — at least for now. Doctors who care for the elderly under the federal program will be paid at current rates until Dec. 31.

But the compromise falls short of the 13-month solution sought by physicians groups and advocates for seniors. Unless Congress passes further legislation next month, doctors will face another massive cut Jan. 1.

Senate Finance Committee Chairman Max Baucus (D-Mont.) and Sen. Charles E. Grassley (R- Iowa), who worked out the deal, said in a statement that they would work to find a longer-term fix before the end of the year.

The fee cuts, designed in 1997 to be phased in over many years to control Medicare spending, have been repeatedly delayed. When deferred, the cuts accumulate, forcing lawmakers to scramble for "patches," a process that has wreaked havoc in doctors' offices nationwide.

But eliminating the cuts entirely could cost hundreds of billions of dollars. The $1-billion cost of the one-month deferral is being offset by cuts in Medicare payments to providers of some therapy services.

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