Congress Gets Defensive with Medicare Payments


Congressional action has delayed a potentially devastating cut in Medicare physician reimbursements for at least two more months, while a separate attempt to delay the looming elimination of Medicare’s consultation billing codes now seems increasingly unlikely to succeed.

In November, the House of Representatives passed a bill that would have rescinded the 21.2% cut to Medicare’s physician fee schedule for 2010 (dictated by the current formula’s sustainable growth rate, or SGR). But the Senate balked at the expected $247 billion price tag, and was unable to muster enough votes to avert a filibuster.

Trying a different tack, House Democrats used the must-pass Defense appropriations bill to push through an amendment freezing Medicare payments at current levels through February, buying Congress more time to find a better solution. The Senate followed suit by approving the bill on Saturday, though a longer-term fix is still in flux. A joint letter by SHM, the American Medical Association (AMA), and other physicians groups calls for a permanent end to the SGR formula—a potentially contentious issue that will await Congress in 2010.

Meanwhile, a request from the AMA and other physician groups to delay the elimination of Medicare consultation codes for a year to allow more time for guidance and ironing out technical issues has yielded no guarantees from the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services (CMS). Sen. Arlen Specter (D-Penn.) had offered an amendment seeking such a delay to the Senate’s healthcare reform legislation, but a spokesperson from Spector's office said the amendment did not move forward with the Senate bill—an exclusion that now makes a last-minute reprieve unlikely.

In the interim, CMS has released a 29-page transmittal explaining how the eliminated codes will be replaced by existing evaluation and management codes. Click here to download a PDF of the transmittal.

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