Bargain Over Fiscal Cliff Brings Changes To Health Care : Shots - Health News Health care has been a major focus in recent budget battles. New legislation provides a temporary fix in payments for doctors, but it will be paid for by a decade of cuts to hospitals. And a program for long-term-care insurance won't ever get off the ground.
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Bargain Over Fiscal Cliff Brings Changes To Health Care

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Bargain Over Fiscal Cliff Brings Changes To Health Care

Bargain Over Fiscal Cliff Brings Changes To Health Care

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We've also been reporting this week on the extra provisions in that fiscal cliff deal that Congress passed on New Year's Day. NPR's Julie Rovner reports there were some key changes to health policy included as well.

JULIE ROVNER, BYLINE: The health care change that got the most attention saved doctors who treat Medicare patients from a cut in their pay. A really, really big cut, says David Bronson. He's president of the American College of Physicians and an internist in Cleveland, Ohio.

DAVID BRONSON: We know that this would really devastate access to seniors, to just cut payment rates by almost 27 percent, and that would be a terrible thing for the American public.

ROVNER: Because a cut that big would almost certainly drive doctors to stop taking new Medicare patients and perhaps even drop existing ones. But the language in the bill wasn't exactly what doctors were hoping for. It's just another one-year delay in what's become a familiar series since what just about everyone agrees is a flawed payment formula began calling for cuts in 2002.

BRONSON: We're happy that the cuts aren't going into place, but we're hopeful that somehow this year a long term solution to get a stable payment system for physicians will get done.

ROVNER: Of course that's been the plan every year since 2003, when Congress first started putting the cuts off. It hasn't happened yet. Meanwhile, in the shorter term, Bronson says doctors are worried about what might happen when the across-the-board cuts known as the sequester are back on the table in just eight more weeks.

BRONSON: We're particularly concerned about graduate medical education.

ROVNER: That's the program where the federal government helps pay for the training of young doctors, nurses and other medical professionals.

BRONSON: That has been listed as a potential place where cuts could be made, and graduate medical education is vital to the medical workforce in this country. And we need to be expanding it, not reducing it.

ROVNER: But a health program no one was watching already got eliminated as part of the fiscal cliff deal. It was called the CLASS Act, and it was originally part of the 2010 health law. Originally added to the bill just before his death by Massachusetts Democratic Senator Edward Kennedy, the CLASS program was intended to provide moderate cost, publicly administered, long-term-care insurance that would provide moderate benefits in return. Larry Minnix is president of Leading Age, a group of more than 6,000 nonprofit providers of services to seniors and people with disabilities.

LARRY MINNIX: Long-term care, in the broadest sense of it, is responsible for people, including families, the 355 days a year they're not in the hospital and the 22 hours a day they're not in the doctor's office. And there was no product available for those people and we thought it was time that that gap be filled.

ROVNER: Republicans, however, saw the CLASS Act as a new and potentially unlimited government program that couldn't possibly pay for itself. Says Minnix...

MINNIX: We went from something that most every family is going to need but nobody wanted to talk about, into the most controversial part of it.

ROVNER: So in October of 2011, with the entire health law under legal attack, Obama officials put the CLASS Act into what Minnix refers to as an administration-induced coma.

MINNIX: We understand why they did it. It became too controversial at a controversial time.

ROVNER: But the administration had successfully fended off efforts to repeal the program, until now. At the insistence of West Virginia Democratic Senator Jay Rockefeller, CLASS was replaced by a new bipartisan commission charged with coming up with plans for helping Americans pay for long-term care. But it's still essentially back to square one for the program, and for Medicare, worries health policy analyst Bob Laszewski, which has been a major sticking point in all the recent budget battles. And it's likely to come up again in upcoming fights over the delayed budget cuts, raising the debt ceiling, and when last year's temporary spending bills expire, all before the end of March.

BOB LASZEWSKI: We're going to have three more cliff issues over the next three months, but we don't even have a Medicare entitlement fix on the table, from either side.

ROVNER: Which means the 113th Congress is almost certain to get off to a rocky start. Julie Rovner, NPR News, Washington.

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