In rare deal, Boehner, Pelosi tout wins for seniors, doctors

Friday, March 20, 2015, Vol. 39, No. 12

WASHINGTON (AP) — An extraordinary bipartisan accord between House Speaker John Boehner and Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi is letting both parties exhale as they move toward ending the nagging annual threat of Medicare cuts to physicians. Yet each side is bragging about far more than that.

For Boehner, R-Ohio, the package announced Tuesday lets him claim a rare if modest bipartisan pact to strengthen the finances of the costly Medicare health care program for seniors. Attempts by Boehner and President Barack Obama to strike dramatic, money-saving compromises overhauling Medicare and the nation's other growing benefit programs have foundered in recent years, including during their 2011 "grand bargain" talks.

"We have no intentions of passing any kind of a short-term doc fix," Boehner told reporters, using Washington's nickname for the Medicare doctors' measure in a warning to the Senate, where the measure's fate is uncertain. "We've got a good product, we're going to pass it here on Thursday and I hope the Senate will move as quickly as possible."

The plan's fate is less certain in the Senate.

Pelosi, D-Calif., was focused more on the extra money the plan contains for health care programs for children and low-income people.

"In this environment I think we made great progress," said Pelosi, referring to two years of additional money for the Children's Health Insurance Program and the nation's community health centers, which serve poor families, at a time when Republicans run Congress.

The measure would also make permanent programs helping low-income seniors pay Medicare deductibles and poor families retain Medicaid as they get jobs.

Pelosi also had to defend the package against Democratic critics, mainly in the Senate, who complained that it doesn't do enough for children and women and would engrave abortion restrictions into permanent law. The measure subjects community health centers to abortion curbs that Congress has enacted annually since 1979 —called the Hyde amendment — language Pelosi says is routine and will expire after two years.

"I said to my colleagues this morning, I would leave Congress before I'd vote for codification of the Hyde language," said the 27-year congressional veteran, an abortion-rights leader whose compromise with Boehner is being heavily criticized by normally staunch allies.

Ilyse Hogue, president of NARAL Pro-Choice America, said the bill "advances a bad policy that harms women and families." Planned Parenthood Federation of America President Cecile Richards said it would "permanently block some women from getting the health care their doctors say they need."

Yet the politics of the abortion issue was especially muddled. The House Pro-Choice Caucus, which co-chair Rep. Diana DeGette, D-Colo., said had 170 members, issued a statement backing the measure, saying it "does not further restrict women's access to abortion."

House GOP and Democratic leaders both said they expected strong support from rank-and-file lawmakers, and House passage seemed likely. Powerful lobbying groups have focused their efforts on the Senate, where the American Medical Association has backed the pact while AARP, the senior's lobby, has so far called it "not a balanced deal for older Americans." Its prospects there are more questionable.

But a strong House vote could put extra pressure on the Senate to approve the measure.

No. 2 Senate GOP leader John Cornyn of Texas said there was "excitement" among Senate Republicans.

Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., who has criticized the plan's abortion restrictions, said Tuesday that he would wait for House passage "before we start speculating on what we need to do with it, if anything."

The main thrust of the overall measure would prevent a scheduled April 1 cut of 21 percent in reimbursements for doctors treating Medicare patients. A 1997 budget law pegged physician Medicare payments to overall economic growth, threatening repeated, deep cuts that Congress has blocked temporarily 17 times since 2003.

Sen. Richard Durbin of Illinois, the No. 2 Senate Democratic leader, said Senate action seemed unlikely this week before lawmakers break for a two-week recess. In past stalemates over doctors' Medicare reimbursements, the government has delayed paying checks for two weeks while lawmakers settled their differences.

Instead of the current reimbursement formula, doctors would get 0.5 percent payment increases over the next five years. A system of financial rewards and penalties would be created to coax physicians to bill patients for their quality of care, not the treatments they undergo.

No cost figures were released. But the bill was expected to cost around $210 billion over the next 10 years, with two-thirds financed by larger federal deficits over that period.

The remaining costs would be split about evenly between Medicare beneficiaries and providers like nursing homes.

The package would increase Medicare medical and prescription drug premiums for the highest-earning seniors — individuals earning $134,000 annually and up and couples making at least $267,000. Starting in 2020, it would require people buying new Medigap policies — which insure expenses Medicare doesn't cover — to pay out-of-pocket costs of at least $147 annually, in hopes of making seniors more cost-conscious when seeking care.

Those increased costs for beneficiaries are expected to save $35 billion over the first 10 years. Republicans say it would save much more in two decades, but no official figures have been released. Those savings are an important selling for GOP leaders to conservative lawmakers concerned about the measure's impact on the deficit.

The $35 billion, while real savings, would be 0.5 percent of the $7 trillion Medicare is projected to spend over the coming decade.