KHN Morning Briefing

Summaries of health policy coverage from major news organizations

House Votes To Extend COBRA Benefits, Delay Medicare Physician Pay Cuts

The House of Representatives voted yesterday to delay Medicare doctor payment cuts and extend COBRA benefits.

Bloomberg: "A health-care subsidy that lowers insurance premiums by 65 percent for some unemployed U.S. workers was extended for six months under legislation approved in the House. ... The House passed a defense bill ... with an amendment increasing the period for the 65 percent subsidy from nine to 15 months and extends eligibility for those who lose their jobs through Feb. 28. The bill now goes to the Senate. The nine-month subsidy began expiring last month for employees who first received it when President Barack Obama signed the economic stimulus plan in February. Workers who lose their jobs can remain on their employer's health plan for as long as 18 months under the 1986 law known as COBRA" (Collins, 12/16).

Related KHN story: Frustrated Workers And employers Anxious For COBRA Extension (Miller, 12/11).

The Detroit News: "Laid-off workers who ran through the original nine months of health care subsidy will be able to hop back in for an extra six months of assistance. Workers laid off as late as Feb. 28 would be able to get the subsidy for 15 months. ... The bill also extended the expiration date of expanded unemployment benefits from Dec. 31 to Feb. 28" (Price, 12/16).

And, the bill included a temporary Medicare "doc fix." The Wall Street Journal reports that "[a]ll year, Congress has been trying to figure out what to do about the 21% cut in Medicare payments to doctors that's set to take effect on Jan. 1, 2010. The latest legislative maneuver would block the cut - but only for two months. ... A Senate bill to get rid of the payment formula failed in October, largely because of the $247 billion price tag associated with scrapping the pay cuts. At the time, Harry Reid said the Senate was likely to go back to the 'one-year fix' - that's Congress' recent habit of blocking scheduled pay cuts to doctors for a year at a time, without throwing out the underlying payment formula that keeps calling for the cuts. Of course, the Senate's been a bit busy with other health-care stuff lately, and hasn't gotten around to that one-year fix. But the defense-spending bill is a must-pass piece of legislation, so it's likely that the two-month patch will make it through the Senate before the end of the month" (Goldstein, 12/16).

Modern HealthCare: "Various proposals in the House and Senate seek a more permanent fix to Medicare's sustainable growth-rate, or SGR, formula, which is based on the economy's health and has threatened payment cuts to physicians every year since 2003. Physicians, however, aren't banking on any of those proposals getting approved before Jan. 1, the date when their Medicare payments are expected to get cut by 21.2% under the SGR formula" (Lubell, 12/16).

Congress Daily: "The American Medical Association has said it will not support another patch. The Senate is expected to take up the spending measure as early as Friday" (12/16).

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