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U.S. House leader says prospects good for fixing Medicare doctor pay

(Reuters) – U.S. House of Representatives Speaker John Boehner said on Tuesday that prospects were good for passage of a permanent fix to Medicare’s flawed doctor-pay formula that would spare physicians from impending steep pay cuts.

The Republican leader said the House was intent on avoiding the kind of short-term repair that has been resorted to previously.

Earlier on Tuesday, Boehner and House Democratic Leader Nancy Pelosi announced that bipartisan legislation had been introduced to change the way doctors are reimbursed for Medicare costs. A vote is expected on Thursday.

Though potential pitfalls remain, signals from top lawmakers suggested a deal may be near to solve a long-standing problem and show bipartisan agreement is possible in this new Congress.

“I feel good about where we are on the doc fix,” Boehner told reporters, referring to the proposals’ nickname. He said talks with Pelosi had been productive, open and honest, and had created a “very solid package.”

The proposal would replace the current doctor payment formula with one that has a stronger focus on quality of care, with doctors receiving performance scores from the government starting in 2019, according to summaries of the legislation.

The old formula linked doctors’ pay increases to economic growth, but it has been overridden temporarily by Congress 17 times in the last dozen years because it repeatedly threatened deep cuts in doctors’ pay.

Brushing aside possible opposition from some Senate Democrats, Boehner said the House had “no intentions” of passing any kind of a short-term repair to the payment formula, as Congress has done repeatedly in recent years because lawmakers could not agree on permanent changes.

Some Senate Democrats, including Minority Leader Harry Reid, have said they are worried about anti-abortion language included in the House bill, though some House Democrats downplayed that concern.

Congress needs to take action by April 1 to avoid having hundreds of thousands of doctors who participate in traditional Medicare face a 21 percent cut in their reimbursements. Medicare serves 54 million elderly and disabled people.

The House doc fix legislation would cost an estimated $200 billion over 10 years. Lawmakers have worked out how to pay for only about $70 billion, in part by means testing Medicare beneficiaries so people with higher incomes pay more.

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