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RENEE MONTAGNE, HOST:

It's MORNING EDITION from NPR News. Good morning. I'm Renee Montagne.

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

And I'm Steve Inskeep. Once they finish voting on Syria, Congress has plenty else to do this month. Health care remains near the top of that list, with the Republicans still looking for ways to slow or stop the health care law that is just weeks from taking full effect. But very quietly, lawmakers are also moving toward an unexpected bipartisan agreement on another health issue, one that has defied solution for more than a decade. As NPR's Julie Rovner reports, this fall could produce a long-awaited fix to the way Medicare pays doctors.

JULIE ROVNER, BYLINE: Quick, say the words health care and Congress, and you think fight, right? But just before leaving for summer break, this happened in the usually fractious House Energy and Commerce Committee.

(SOUNDBITE OF COMMITTEE MEETING)

REPRESENTATIVE FRED UPTON: Fifty-one ayes, zero nays. The bill as amended is passed.

ROVNER: That was Michigan Republican Fred Upton, announcing unanimous, bipartisan approval of legislation to replace the system by which Medicare pays doctors. It would repeal something called the SGR - the sustainable growth rate - which, he noted, has threatened to cut physician pay, often by double digit rates, for each of the past dozen years.

UPTON: Since its passage in 1997, SGR has bred uncertainty and frustration. Doctors have been forced to endure 11th hour fixes, sometimes on a monthly basis, which clearly have stymied physicians' abilities to run their own practices.

ROVNER: Efforts to undo those cuts have come to be known as the 'doc fix.' And finding the money to pay for each fix has become an annual - and, as Upton mentioned — sometimes monthly - headache for doctors, lawmakers, and seniors alike. But while just about everyone agrees that the payment formula is flawed and that cutting Medicare doctor pay is a bad idea for doctors and the seniors they serve, no one seemed to be able to figure out how to fix it.

So pretty much every year since 2001, Congress has put in a patch and promised that next year they'd figure something out for the longer term. Says Ardis Hoven, President of the American Medical Association:

ARDIS HOVEN: Over the last 10 years we've spent about $146 billion on patches and patches and patches. We lived through 2010.

ROVNER: That was the year Congress had to avert cuts on a monthly basis, something Hoven says was more than a little frustrating for doctors and their patients.

HOVEN: People can't run practices like that. They can't budget, they can't plan, they can't do anything. And it was very destabilizing.

ROVNER: Until this year. So what's changed? One thing is that Congress literally got tired of hearing the phrase kicking the can down the road, says Congressman Mike Burgess. He's a Republican member of the Energy and Commerce Committee, a doctor and former member of the AMA House of Delegates, and one of the lead negotiators on the bill.

REPRESENTATIVE MIKE BURGESS: I know I've heard leader Cantor talk about it when we were in the minority.

ROVNER: That's House Majority Leader Eric Cantor.

BURGESS: Maybe we were in the minority because we didn't solve big problems, and the SGR was one he always alluded to.

ROVNER: Another reason fixing the problem seems more possible this year is that it's on sale. Literally. Because health care costs in general, and Medicare costs in particular, have been growing more slowly, early this year the Congressional Budget Office said that eliminating the formula would only cost half as much over 10 years as it predicted last year. That's important, says AMA's Hoven.

HOVEN: It sent a diff message, I think, that the cost of this was something that could be more easily and readily managed.

ROVNER: Of course, even at half price that 10 year cost is still around $140 billion, and the House Energy and Commerce Committee bill sidestepped the thorny issue of how to pay for it. Here's Democratic Congressman Henry Waxman of California.

REPRESENTATIVE HENRY WAXMAN: If this legislation is to become law, it is imperative that we continue to work together, along with our colleagues on the Ways and Means Committee, to develop pay-for's that maintain our bipartisan consensus.

ROVNER: Which raises yet another potential obstacle. Oversight of Medicare in Congress is shared by two committees in the House and one in the Senate. All three are working at tandem - and with the same unusual bipartisan cooperation - to solve the physician pay problem this fall. But for that to happen it means lightning will have to strike not just once, but in three separate places by the end of the year. Julie Rovner, NPR News, Washington.

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