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Published: Saturday, 7/5/2008

Saving Medicare, again

THE Bush Administration was wise to give Congress time to prevent a reduction in payments to doctors in the federal Medicare program and to make improvements in bidding for medical equipment.

Ours is an aging population, and with the rising cost of medical care, doctors who accept Medicare patients have a tough enough time covering expenses without facing a 10.6 percent reduction in payments for their services.

Doctors sought congressional intervention to put a halt to the cut, which was expected to take effect July 1. However, the White House said it would hold off on the decrease so Congress can deal with it when members return from the July 4 recess. Meanwhile, the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services promised not to process claims for two weeks or so while lawmakers reconsider.

The House had already voted overwhelmingly - 355 to 59 - to delay the cut, but the Senate could muster only 59 of the 60 votes needed to consider the measure.

Dealing with Medicare funding has become an annual, and unnecessary, uncertainty for physicians. Though some 7,000 citizens reach 65 each year now, by 2011, about 10,000 people will turn 65 every year.

Congress imposed a ceiling on Medicare spending in the Balanced Budget Act of 1997, but if physicians are to continue giving elderly patients quality care, they must be paid equitably. If the reimbursement rate is cut, doctors will be forced to stop seeing new patients.

The same applies to the durable medical equipment measure contained in the House bill.

The intent is to rein in fraud, reduce patients' costs, and improve competition among suppliers of wheelchairs, oxygen tanks, and other equipment typically used by the elderly and disabled. The proposal would save Medicare $1 billion a year, but equipment suppliers don't like it because they would have to cut their prices. And by most accounts, these suppliers are overcharging their customers.

Whether the new bidding process would devastate businesses, degrade service, and inconvenience patients is certainly debatable, but there is no question that medical equipment costs are kept artificially high under the current program.

The Senate's version of the House bill includes an 18-month delay for competitive bidding, which is what is holding up the legislation.

We believe that ensuring sufficient medical care for the elderly, as well as cutting equipment costs for this same group of hard-pressed folks, trumps the self-serving concerns of the equipment suppliers.

Congress should ignore this particular special-interest plea and do what's right for the elderly.

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