A Medicare bill that would raise physician Medicare payments by 1.5% for the next two years will move to the full House floor after the Energy and Commerce Committee passed it yesterday in a 29-20 vote.
The measure, HR 2473, would replace a CMS-predicted cut of 4.2% in 2004 with a minimum 1.5% increase in 2004 and 2005. It also would change part of the sustainable growth rate formula that is used to calculate the annual physician fee update by using a 10-year rolling, or average, gross domestic product that would smooth out wild swings in the physician update from year to year, beginning in 2006.
The Ways and Means Committee passed the bill on June 17.
Physician lobbyists are supportive of the measure but concerned that the bill currently being debated by the Senate does not address across-the-board payment increases for doctors.
Members of the leadership in both chambers say they intend to vote on Medicare reform before the July 4 Congressional recess. The different House and Senate bills would then have to be reconciled in conference and signed by President Bush to become law.
"(The House bill) buys us two years of relief from expected cuts, but one change in the underlying formula won't be enough to prevent further cuts in 2006 and beyond," says Robert Doherty, senior vice president for governmental affairs and public policy in the Washington office of the American College of Physicians.
In other health-related House action, the committee on Ways and Means yesterday voted 23-16 to pass a Republican-sponsored measure, HR 2351, that allows individuals to set up new tax-free health savings accounts. The bill lets individuals save $2,000 a year to pay for medical expense, families up to $4,000 a year, and requires that the health coverage they purchase have a minimum $500 deductible.
"Importantly, retiree health insurance, prescription drugs, qualified long-term services, as well as diagnosis, cure, mitigation, treatment and prevention of disease, are all examples of the qualified expenses that can be paid for with HSAs," says Ways and Means Chairman William Thomas (R-Calif.) in a written statement.
Employees, employers and family members are eligible to contribute to the accounts, which are portable. In addition, up to $500 of unused balances in flexible spending accounts can be transferred to an HSA.
"This is a direct attack on employer-sponsored health insurance," says Rep. Pate Stark (D-Calif.) in a release. "The legislation allows employers to sell employees short."
Finally, the full House passed a bill 262-162 to allow small businesses to form national trade associations to purchase health insurance for their employees. The group insurance plans would be under the jurisdiction of the federal government and would not be subject to state minimum coverage requirements, a provision some Democrats oppose.