Boehner, Pelosi see victories in fixing Medicare docs' fees

Staff Writer
Columbus CEO

WASHINGTON (AP) — An uncharacteristic joint effort by House Speaker John Boehner and his usual nemesis, Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, to resolve a gnawing problem about how Medicare pays doctors underscores the political victories each sees in finally sweeping the issue off the deck — if they can.

Boehner, R-Ohio, has taken the unusual step of working with Pelosi toward a compromise he can offer Republican lawmakers. This is angering some conservatives with whom he's repeatedly clashed, including last month when they opposed legislation preventing a Homeland Security Department shutdown and he turned to Pelosi, D-Calif., for votes.

Pelosi knows the emerging bill is upsetting many liberals. They're unhappy that it increases costs for some Medicare beneficiaries but not for the very doctors who would benefit.

Both House leaders think the clashes are worthwhile for a proposal that would block an April 1 cut of 21 percent in the fees Medicare pays physicians, establish a new way to pay them and replenish funds for a popular children's health program.


A 1997 deficit-reduction deal included a formula limiting physicians' reimbursements for Medicare patients. Because medical costs have grown faster than envisioned, that formula requires fees that both parties consider unrealistically low and doctors warn could force them to abandon Medicare recipients.

Congress has blocked the cuts 17 times since 2002. That has meant recurrent battles over finding other budget cuts to pay for the lost savings, fights many lawmakers want to end.


They'd abolish the existing doctors' fee formula. Physicians would get 0.5 percent annual increases for five years. Hoping to curb Medicare spending, doctors would be offered financial incentives to charge patients for the quality of care they receive, not the treatments they undergo.

The package could change as Boehner and Pelosi seek votes. Lawmakers, lobbyists and aides say it would do other things like financing the Children's Health Insurance Program, serving around 8 million low-income children annually, for two more years.

Overall, it would cost roughly $200 billion over 10 years. About $140 billion would be financed with higher federal deficits, with the rest split between higher costs for some Medicare recipients and cuts to providers like nursing homes.

The proposal's fate is unclear, especially in the Senate, a bystander in the process.


Resolving the perennial conundrum over physicians' Medicare fees could show voters the Republican-run Congress can govern while simultaneously averting another self-inflicted crisis. That's important with the 2016 presidential and congressional campaigns looming.

The proposal's higher premiums for top-earning Medicare recipients, plus increased out-of-pocket costs for people buying Medigap policies, could let Boehner claim to have reformed the costly Medicare program, another Republican goal. Boehner would resolve the problem without tax increases, a GOP priority.

Fixing the fee problem would please the medical industry, whose campaign contributions lean Republican.


Some conservatives oppose the plan because it would increase deficits over the coming decade. They also resent Boehner's cooperation with Democrats.

"We all got elected to push conservative policies, not sit down with Nancy Pelosi and work out something," said Rep. Tim Huelskamp, R-Kan.

Huelskamp is among several conservatives who frequently defy Boehner, most recently over the Homeland Security Department shutdown. Some Republicans say if Boehner can't win over conservatives on bills he considers crucial, why not start by seeking Democratic votes?

"It sends a message to the caucus: 'Guys, if you don't work with me to get this stuff done, we're going to get it done another way,'" said former Rep. Tom Davis, R-Va., a GOP insider.


Many support the plan, citing Republican projections that charging the wealthiest Medicare recipients higher premiums would reap billions of dollars in two decades, a major achievement. They say this would clear the way for a future Medicare overhaul.


Ending persistent doubts about doctors dropping Medicare is a plus for both parties, which compete for support from heavy-voting seniors. Democrats are especially protective of Medicare and consider stabilizing it a victory.

Many Democrats are pleased that to pay for the $200 billion plan, benefit cuts are relatively small. According to one Democratic aide, of roughly $35 billion in pared benefits, all but $1 billion comes from higher Medicare premiums for people earning more than $133,000 yearly. Liberals worry that the increase might eventually spread to lower earners.

A program that helps low earners pay some of their Medicare deductibles and other costs would be made permanent, another Democratic win.

The children's health program, whose funding expires Oct. 1, would be financed two more years. Democrats consider that a victory, though Democratic senators and liberals want four years.

Locking that children's money down avoids leaving it vulnerable to a Supreme Court case later this year. If the justices invalidate subsidies under President Barack Obama's health care overhaul, the children's program could become a bargaining chip in negotiations with Republicans to rebuild that law.