The Senate passed a bill Friday rescinding a 21% cut and adding a 2.2% increase for Medicare payments. The bill was passed by unanimous consent after lawmakers found a way to pay for the boost without raising the budget deficit.
The bill now goes back to the House of Representatives, which had previously approved it, because of Senate changes to the measure. A Democratic leadership aide said the House would take up the bill early next week.
But the delay in congressional action came too late to stop the first reduced Medicare payments to doctors from the scheduled 21.3% cut that went into effect June 1.
The Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services said that after waiting since May for congressional approval, it can't wait any longer. So it is processing all claims from June 1 up till now.
"This is the largest reduction that the doctors' payment has ever experienced," said centers spokesman Peter Ashkenaz.
With their future payments still uncertain, physicians found little reason to rejoice over the Senate approval.
"It's going to go back to the House now, and it looks like they're not going to be in session until Tuesday afternoon," said Dr. Lori Heim, president of the American Academy of Family Physicians.
"It's definitely something that physicians are concerned about," said Jack Hoadley, research professor at Georgetown University's Health Policy Institute.
Hoadley said Congress usually makes fixes such as this one retroactive. But, he added, "even if it turns out there's a retroactive fix, there's a real cash issue."
Heim said she knows physicians who "already decided that they could no longer continue to see Medicare patients if the cut went through. There are other physicians that I've heard from who have decided to stop taking Medicare patients."
"This is really outrageous," she added.
The American Medical Association also weighed in.
"Congress is playing Russian roulette with seniors' health care," said AMA President Dr. Cecil B. Wilson. "Congress has finally taken its game of brinkmanship too far, as the steep 21% cut is now in effect and physicians will be forced to make difficult practice changes to keep their practice doors open."
More than 43 million Americans receive medical care through Medicare.