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“Doc Fix” Bill Sails Through Congress

Friday, February 17th, 2012

Today both houses of Congress passed a “doc fix” bill so that Medicare will continue to pay doctors at their current rate. Without it, on March 1 doctors would have seen a 27 percent cut in the payments they receive for treating Medicare patients. The new “fix” expires January 1, 2013.

Today’s agreement may show us that some politicians have learned a lesson — that it’s not smart to use Medicare as a political football. For American seniors, Medicare is not a game, but a lifeline they depend on. This includes the majority of Americans diagnosed with mesothelioma, since the deadly lung cancer takes decades to develop and usually isn’t diagnosed in younger people.

The bill passed today has three main provisions: One, it extends a temporary cut in payroll taxes to the end of this year. Two, it extends unemployment benefits. And three, it overrides a Medicare reimbursement formula passed in 1997 that would have required the massive cuts to physicians’ Medicare pay.

You might remember Congress squabbling about this bill last December. Congress had failed to come to an agreement on these three items, which were set to expire at the end of 2011. The Senate cobbled together a two-month extension so that everyone could go home for Christmas and resume negotiations in January.

But on December 20, House Republicans rejected the extension bill. They wanted to wring some concessions from Democrats, such as relaxation of environmental protection rules, in exchange for their votes. House Republicans assumed the Democrats would be so frantic to get the bill passed they would give in to demands.

The Democrats refused to play chicken, however. House Republicans realized they had overplayed their hand, and that people would blame them if payroll taxes went up and doctors stopped seeing Medicare patients. On December 22, the House agreed to the two-month extension.

The bill passed today was agreed upon by Republican and Democratic leaders, and both parties made some concessions. Republicans dropped a demand that revenue lost through the payroll tax cut be offset with spending cuts. Democrats agreed to take money out of other health care programs to pay for the “doc fix.”

It appears Republicans in Washington decided that they didn’t want to begin a major election year by raising payroll taxes or messing with Medicare. “We’re dumb, but we’re not stupid,” Sen. John McCain said. “We did not want to repeat the debacle of last December. It’s not that complicated.”