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House backs one-year delay to doctor pay cuts under Medicare

By Susan Cornwell and Susan Heavey

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - The U.S. House of Representatives approved legislation on Thursday to avert looming pay cuts for doctors under the government's Medicare health insurance program for older Americans and the disabled.

The measure to postpone the cuts was approved in a voice vote after an earlier delay signaled potential trouble mustering support for the bill, which halts the pay cuts for one year.

Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, a Democrat, said the bill would be brought up for a vote in that chamber on Monday, with no opportunity to amend it, meaning that if it passes it will go straight to President Barack Obama to sign into law. Reid said a supermajority of 60 votes would be required. The Senate has 100 members.

The measure would once again give doctors a one-year reprieve from a 24 percent cut that would otherwise take effect on April 1 under the Medicare payment formula, known as the sustainable growth rate, or SGR.

But House passage was nonetheless a let-down for doctors' groups, which have become frustrated with the uncertainty of temporary measures and have been lobbying for a longer-term fix to the payments formula that was set up in the 1990s. The formula has never been fully enacted and instead has been overridden 16 times by Congress.

The payments affect doctors treating patients under Medicare, which pays for healthcare for nearly 51 million people in the United States who are 65 and older or disabled.

The American Medical Association said it was "extremely disappointed" that House lawmakers had given up on a complete repeal of the old payments formula.

"There was bipartisan, bicameral support for reform this year, yet too many in Congress lacked the courage and wherewithal to permanently fix Medicare to improve care for patients and provide greater certainty for physician practices," the AMA said in the statement issued after the House vote.

Key lawmakers in both parties and both chambers have said they favor reforming the payments formula but they disagree on whether and how to fund the large, $138 billion price tag of a permanent fix. Meanwhile, some Republicans said Thursday, the one-year repair was the best they could do.

If Congress did not act, doctors that treat Medicare patients might say, "Gosh, we just can't do this, that appointment is canceled; we are just going to stop serving Medicare patients," Representative Fred Upton, chairman of the Energy and Commerce Committee, said on the House floor.

PATH TO PASSAGE?

On Wednesday, House Speaker John Boehner, a Republican, said he and the Senate's Reid had agreed to a proposal to delay the pay cuts for another year. Boehner said he expected both chambers to act swiftly.

But the plan almost came unglued Thursday after House leaders fast-tracked the measure to the floor under a provision requiring a two-thirds majority vote, only to discover that they might not get the two-thirds needed if they called the roll.

After lawmakers who are also doctors huddled in a room off the House floor with the Republican leadership, the leaders decided to try to pass the bill on a voice vote, which succeeded after no one in either party insisted on having a roll call.

Democratic Representative Gerald Connolly told reporters the "chatter on the floor" was that Senate Democrats, including Reid, had urged House Democrats not to insist on a roll call, to allow the bill to advance so the Senate could take action.

(Reporting by Susan Cornwell and Susan Heavey; Editing by Doina Chiacu, Dan Grebler and Richard Chang)

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