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Politics Aside, Annual Medicare Fix Is Same Old Story
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Politics Aside, Annual Medicare Fix Is Same Old Story



This is WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. I'm Liane Hanson.

Congress is at an impasse over how to fix a perennial problem in Medicare. Just about every year, a formula glitch threatens to cut payments to doctors who treat seniors and the disabled. And just about every year, Congress cancels the cut. This year, lawmakers are complaining about the bill because it's not paid for.

But as NPR's Julie Rovner reports, despite what both Republicans and Democrats are claiming, that's nothing new.

JULIE ROVNER: Rather than do another one or two-year patch for the Medicare doctor pay cut problem, Senate Democrats had wanted to fix the problem permanently, but their bill couldn't even make it to the Senate floor. It fell short on its first procedural test last Wednesday by 13 votes. The reason cited by virtually every opponent was that the bill's $250 billion, 10-year cost wasn't paid for with other spending cuts or increased taxes.

Among the opponents, New Hampshire Republican Senator Judd Gregg. He appeared last Sunday on CNN.

(Soundbite of television program)

Senator JUDD GREGG (Republican, New Hampshire): We've only done yearly fixes in this area, the doctor fix, because it's a pretty difficult number to always pay for, but we have always paid for it.

ROVNER: Actually, Congress hasn't always paid for it. In fact, when Republicans were in charge, they rarely paid to cancel the Medicare cuts to doctors. Just before turning control of Congress back to the Democrats at the end of 2006, Republicans actually tucked legislation to cancel the next year's doctor pay cut into a catch-all tax bill that wasn't paid for either. And one of the people who complained the loudest: then-Senate Budget Committee Chairman Judd Gregg

Sen. GREGG: You just have to ask yourself how we as a party got to this point, where we have a leadership, which is going to ram down the throats of our party the biggest budget buster in the history of the Congress under Republican leadership.

ROVNER: But Republicans don't have a lock on short-term memory problems. Here's how White House Press Secretary Robert Gibbs responded when he was asked about the issue last Thursday.

Mr. ROBERT GIBBS (Press Secretary, White House): The cut in payments to doctors is something that is to be implemented every year and gets fixed every year for the past six years. The president included in his budget fixing for and paying for that fix.

ROVNER: Except Gibbs was only half right. President Obama's budget does propose to fix the payment problem in that it would cancel next year's Medicare cut for doctors and cuts into the future, but it doesn't propose to pay for the added costs either.

In fact, back in March, White House budget director Peter Orszag testified before a House committee that because of the fix the administration proposed in its budget, the federal deficit could be as much as $400 billion higher over the next decade.

Julie Rovner, NPR News, Washington.

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