Dem leaders look to ‘win the docs’

With the nation’s insurers having dropped their support for the health reforms moving through Congress, Senate Democrats are taking daring steps to rally the backing of another powerful medical lobby: doctors.

Sen. Debbie Stabenow (D-Mich.) (WDCpix)
Sen. Debbie Stabenow (D-Mich.) (WDCpix)

The Senate this week is set to take up a $245 billion proposal, introduced hastily just a week ago by Sen. Debbie Stabenow (D-Mich.), to prevent scheduled pay cuts for doctors who treat Medicare patients – a long-term fix to the physician pay quandary that dwarfs the one-year patch contained in the Senate Finance Committee’s reform bill. The proposal has long been advocated by the American Medical Association, the nation’s largest physicians lobby, which has so far declined to endorse the broader Senate health bill. Although the group is also fighting Democrats over malpractice reform, the Stabenow bill would go a long way toward getting the doctors to support the top domestic priority of the Obama administration this year.

Despite the allure of getting the AMA on board, however, the Democrats’ move is not without its pitfalls. For months, party leaders in Congress and the White House have vowed to keep the cost of health reform below $900 billion over 10 years, while also promising that the legislation won’t add “one dime” to the nation’s debt. The Stabenow bill, however, is not paid for, leaving Democrats in the uncomfortable position of claiming that a complete overhaul of the way doctors are paid under Medicare is somehow not a part of health care reform. That pickle has created an urgency: the faster Democrats can pass the physician pay measure, the better chance they have of distancing it from the broader reform effort.

Robert Blendon, professor of health policy at Harvard University, said the Democrats’ success in forging that divide likely “depends on the visibility of the issue.”

“So much attention is on putting the [Finance and HELP committee health reform] bills together that this could go under the radar,” said Blendon, an expert on the Clinton administration’s failed attempt to pass comprehensive health care reform in 1993. “[But] if it gets a lot of media attention, it’s going to be clear to anyone who reads the story that the additional $250 billion is in fact related to health reform.”

At issue is the so-called sustainable growth rate (SGR), a complex, 12-year-old formula designed to prevent Medicare doctor payments from bankrupting the program by indexing reimbursements to the growth of the economy. Because health care inflation has risen much faster than GDP in recent years, the SGR has called for physician cuts every year since 2002. Congress, however, has usually stepped in with temporary patches to prevent those cuts, which the AMA says would force doctors to drop Medicare patients.

Years of kicking the can down the road, though, has caused the cuts to compound. Indeed, next year, the SGR calls for a 21.5 percent reduction in physicians’ Medicare payments, with an additional 5.5 percent cut in each of the four years thereafter. The Finance bill provides roughly $11 billion to address 2010, but lends no long-term relief — a dance that sidesteps one of the most sensitive and expensive problems facing the entire health delivery system.

Enter the Stabenow bill — all 18 lines long — which scraps the SGR altogether, erases the accumulated cuts and provides a 0 percent pay update “for 2010 and each subsequent year.” That means in perpetuity. The idea is to have the broader health reform bill complement Stabenow’s proposal by creating a new physician payment formula that better reflects the true costs of treating Medicare patients.

Calls to AMA were not returned, but the group has launched an enormous ad campaign in support of the strategy.

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