Begich Comments on Senate Vote Against Medicare Bill
Disappointed by refusal to address needed fix for Alaska
October 21, 2009 -- U.S. Senator Mark Begich said he is disappointed by today's floor vote against the Medicare Physician Fairness Act, a bill that would solve longstanding problems in Alaska with the Medicare reimbursement rate for doctors.
The Senate voted 53-47 today against proceeding to floor debate on the measure, which in effect kills the bill. Begich is a co-sponsor of S. 1776, which would repeal the flawed sustainable growth rate (SGR) formula that determines physician payments for Medicare and TRICARE.
"I believe those voting no today turned their backs on those seniors and military veterans in Alaska and other states who are having a hard time seeing a doctor," Begich said. "For years this has been a problem in our state - I hear more about this from our seniors than any other issue. Because of underpayments, some doctors in Alaska are refusing to take new Medicare patients and others are opting out of Medicare entirely."
The current formula cuts doctors' payments in the future if today's physician spending exceeds a target based on the growth of the economy. This has led to scheduled payment cuts over each of the last eight years - and each time the Senate has vote at the last minute for a temporary fix.
The planned cuts are cumulative over time, producing massive payment cuts such as next year's scheduled 21 percent reduction, and a cumulative 40 percent cut anticipated over the next decade. Experts such as the Medicare Payment Advisory Commission unanimously agree that the current system is broken and should be replaced.
S. 1776, whose chief sponsor is Sen. Debbie Stabenow, D- Mich., lays the foundation for real payment reform, Begich said. It allows Congress to truly redesign Medicare physician payments to align them with quality and performance.
Some of the critics of the bill said they voted no because the bill was not paid for. What they seemed to forget is that in each of the last seven years, a payment cut was averted by Congressional intervention to increase the budget. And without a permanent fix the year-to-year increases will still be necessary, Begich said. In addition, he said there are ideas circulating in the Senate about how to pay for S. 1776.
"And now because of today's short-sighted vote we can't even move this debate to the floor and consider amendments that would have paid for the fix," Begich said. "It doesn't make sense to be concerned about a bill and then cut off debate entirely - unless this is just another tactic by defenders of the status quo and special interests to kill health reform."
S. 1776 is supported by AARP, the American Medical Association and many other health care provider organizations.