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As deadline looms, House OKs bill to fix Medicare pay to doctors

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WASHINGTON – The House voted overwhelmingly Thursday to repeal a Medicare formula that was intended to rein in costs but instead threatened to cut doctors’ payments by 21 percent next week, after years of Congress deferring action on the issue.

After 13 years of “kicking the can down the road” with temporary measures that maintained payments to health care providers – Congress had passed the so-called “doc fix” 17 times since 2002 – the House acted in an unusually bipartisan manner for a permanent solution.

Just four Democrats and 33 Republicans voted against the measure, which passed 392-37.

Rep. David Schweikert, R-Fountain Hills, was one of the opponents and the only one from Arizona to vote no. He could not be reached for comment Thursday on his vote.

The measure now goes to the Senate, which has to act before Tuesday to prevent the steep cuts from taking effect. Both the House and Senate are scheduled to be on a two-week recess starting Monday.

In addition to repealing the sustainable growth rate – the formula that would hit doctors’ payments – the House bill also extends the Children’s Health Insurance Program for two years. The program was set to expire at the end of this fiscal year.

Conservatives have criticized the House measure, which would increase the deficit by about $141 billion over the next decade, according to the Congressional Budget Office. But House Speaker John Boehner said on the House floor Thursday that “over the long-term – the next 20, 30, 40 years – the bill will produce hundreds and hundreds of billions of dollars of durable savings for taxpayers.”

The increased cost of the bill would be partially offset by raising premiums paid by higher-income beneficiaries. Those with incomes between $133,500 and $160,000 would have to pay 15 percent more of their premium under the bill, and those with incomes between $160,000 and $214,000 would have to pay 10 percent more.

The increases are expected to affect 2 percent of the Medicare population, according to estimates from two House committees.

While extension of the Children’s Health Insurance Program was a victory for House Democrats, many were not happy that the bill increased premiums on relatively wealthy Medicare beneficiaries.

Rep. Raul Grijalva, D-Tucson, said in a statement released by his office that he is generally pleased with the update to the Medicare payment system, but that he has qualms about increasing costs for wealthy seniors.

“I am disappointed that Republicans demanded additional costs for higher-income seniors, and I will remain steadfast in my opposition to any future attempts by the GOP to impose more costs on low- and moderate-income seniors,” his statement said.

The White House has indicated that President Barack Obama will sign the bill if it passes the Senate.

Rep. Kyrsten Sinema, D-Phoenix, said in a prepared statement that she was “relieved that my colleagues in both parties put partisanship aside” to permanently fix the sustainable growth rate.

“This bipartisan solution protects Arizona seniors, provides stability for doctors, incentivizes better health, and ensures Medicare remains strong and dependable,” her statement said.