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Healthcare Business News
Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid

Senate OKs doc-pay, COBRA subsidies measure

By Jennifer Lubell
Posted: March 10, 2010 - 3:00 pm ET

The Senate voted 62-36 to approve a $138 billion bill that would temporarily prevent Medicare payment cuts to doctors as well as extend federal Medicaid assistance and COBRA premium subsidies.

“This week's bill helps those who have been hit the hardest. Among other things, we're going to extend unemployment benefits to those looking for work, cut taxes for families and businesses, and protect Medicaid so low-income families can afford healthcare,” Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) said in a written statement.

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The legislation would specifically ward off a 21% cut to Medicare physician payments, triggered by its sustainable growth-rate formula, until Oct. 1. Physician groups, however, are hoping that Congress will deliver on a more permanent solution to Medicare's SGR formula, which is based on the economy's health and has been threatening payment cuts to doctors since 2003. The SGR measure is expected to cost $7.3 billion over 10 years.

It also contains a six-month extension in additional federal financial assistance for state Medicaid programs, and would extend COBRA and unemployment insurance benefits through the end of the year.

Opponents of the bill argued that the bill is not fully offset, adding more than $100 billion to the federal deficit over 10 years. While some of these programs may be good for the states in the short run, “at some point a senator has to stand up and say … no more bankrupting the country,” said Sen. George LeMieux (R-Fla.), during floor debate.

The bill heads back to the House, which passed an earlier version of the bill. At deadline it was unclear if the House and Senate would schedule a conference to work out their differences, or if the House would simply vote on the bill with the Senate's changes, before it was sent to the president.

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