Medicare and doctors


Maybe it was too good to be true. A rare bipartisan health-care reform proposal backed by leaders of three major House and Senate committees is foundering because Republicans and Democrats can’t agree on how to pay for it.

The irony is that the measure, which would change the way Medicare reimburses doctors, would slow the growth of health-care spending and taxpayers’ costs. Lawmakers should stop the partisan bickering and start working in good faith to find a way to enact the long-overdue and much-needed reform.

Congress adopted the “sustainable growth rate” formula in 1997 to require physicians’ fees to be cut when spending on Medicare’s insurance plan for doctor bills — Part B — grew faster than the economy.

However, lawmakers repeatedly have postponed those reductions in response to opposition from physicians, who argued that the lower rates would lead them to stop treating Medicare patients. Instead, Congress has spent nearly $154 billion on higher fees.

The formula clearly isn’t the solution to the very real problem of rising health-care costs, and policy makers have known it for years. They just haven’t been able to find a better one.

The current formula is scheduled to cut doctors’ fees by about 25 percent on April 1. With Congress unlikely to settle on a replacement anytime soon, some members want to pass yet another stopgap bill that waives the formula and imposes some other cuts, punting the issue until after the election — and possibly into the next Congress, when Republicans may control both chambers. But such a move risks losing the bipartisan support for difficult but much-needed reforms.

A better alternative is to use money set aside by Congress to suspend the formula for just a few months. That would give lawmakers time to come to agreement on additional ways to make Medicare more efficient and less expensive — assuming that Congress continues to insist on offsetting the cost of a bill that will save the taxpayers money.