The perennial congressional battle over repealing Medicare's sustainable growth-rate payment formula for physicians will kick off Wednesday. Two days of hearings before the House Energy and Commerce Committee will seek to find common ground on a permanent fix to the despised payment formula.
Last year, legislators reached a widely heralded bipartisan, bicameral deal for a permanent repeal and replacement of the formula for physician payment. But the agreement fell apart because negotiators couldn't agree on how to cover the roughly $140 billion price tag over a decade. That led to a 17th straight patch, which expires at the end of March. If no action is taken, doctors will face a 21.2% cut in payments for treating Medicare beneficiaries.
With Republicans now in full control of Congress, they will lead a renewed effort to find a permanent solution. But few close observers of healthcare policy debates in Washington are optimistic about the outcome. The sticking point remains the same: how to pay for repeal.
In recent years, there has been an unprecedented slowdown in Medicare spending, with per-beneficiary costs largely flat over the past five years. Dr. Robert Berenson, a health policy expert at the Urban Institute, attributes that mainly to cuts in payments to hospitals. He suggested more such stiff medicine will be needed if a permanent SGR fix is going to get funded.
“It's possible to look at other providers and suppliers in Medicare and find prudent places to cut,” Berenson said. “Republicans are probably more willing to do that than Democrats.”
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