House Speaker John Boehner said Wednesday that he and top Senate Democrat Harry Reid have reached agreement on legislation to forestall a looming 24 percent cut in Medicare payments to doctors.
Boehner, R-Ohio, said the legislation would fix the problem for 12 months and the House will vote on it Thursday.
Because of a flawed formula dating to 1997, Medicare doctors are threatened with big fee cuts almost every year. Congress has always stepped in to prevent the cuts and must act by Monday to avoid them.
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.
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 to the problem comes as efforts for permanently solving the problem are foundering. There's widespread support for bipartisan legislation to repair, once and for all, the broken Medicare formula but there's 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," Boehner said. "What there isn't agreement on is, `how are we going to pay for it?"'
New Senate Finance Committee Chairman Ron Wyden, an Oregon Democrat, wants to keep working on a permanent solution to the problem. 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 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, "and the reality is, the patches as they are called, they're not free either. You still have to come up with the money."
The temporary measure is financed by a variety of familiar cuts to health care providers, including cuts to hospitals that treat a "disproportionate share" of uninsured patients and extending a 2 percentage point cut to Medicare providers under automatic budget cuts known as sequestration.