A Medicare legislation package that aims to avoid a cut in Medicare reimbursements to physicians is expected to cost between $15 billion and $18 billion, a Senate Finance Committee aide said today after committee members gathered to begin discussions on the bill. The administration told senators the bill must be finished by June 16 for administrative reasons, the aide said, even though the 10 percent pay cut for physicians does not take effect until July 1. As they try to find offsets to pay for the bill, members said they continue to discuss reducing Medicare payments made to private insurers that provide Medicare Advantage plans, Sens. Olympia Snowe, R-Maine, and Kent Conrad, D-N.D., said. Medicare Advantage plans are paid more than traditional Medicare plans to provide additional services for beneficiaries, but lawmakers have called into question the plans' usefulness and insurers' potentially deceptive marketing practices. The program was seen as a potential pot of money last year when Congress passed a six-month patch for the potential pay cut, but some Republicans, particularly from rural areas where the plans are popular, objected.
Members emphasized that today's talks were to assess options, and no final decisions were made, including the likelihood of doing an 18-month physician pay-cut delay, as Senate Finance Chairman Max Baucus has said he wants to do. "We're starting the conversations," Snowe said. "We're trying to sort through people's perspectives." Finance Health Subcommittee Chairman John (Jay) Rockefeller, D-W.Va., was more skeptical, wondering whether committee staff already had a plan in mind. "The purpose of the meeting ... in theory was to get what members felt," Rockefeller said. "The question is: Was the purpose of the meeting to listen to what members felt and depart from what they may already be planning to do?"
This article appears in the May 10, 2008, edition of National Journal Daily PM Update.