Just a few days ago, it looked like Congress might actually do the right thing and end the annual cycle of enacting short-term measures to stop Medicare payment cuts caused by the Sustainable Growth Rate (SGR) formula, only making the problem harder and more expensive to fix the next time around.
But today by a 47-53 vote, the Senate - including 13 Democrats - voted against a motion to end a filibuster against S. 1776, the Physician Payment Fairness Act of 2009, even though the bill had the support of the White House, Senator Finance Committee Chair Max Baucus (D-MT), and Senator Chris Dodd (D-CT), acting chair of the Senate HELP committee during the (late) Senator Ted Kennedy's illness. S. 1776 would have repealed the SGR and eliminated all of the accumulated cuts caused by the formula.
S. 1776 failed despite a huge grass roots push by the ACP, American Medical Association, and other physician organizations, and despite the fact that AARP, the voice of America's seniors, supported the bill.
The bill was victim to the dysfunctional political environment today that makes consensus so difficult. Many Republicans viewed the bill largely as a Democratic effort to "buy" physicians support for health care reform (a cynical and unsupported allegation - more on this later) and they wanted to deny the Democrats a victory on anything having to do with health care reform. They also wanted the cost of the SGR repeal to be counted against the cost of the health reform bill, so that the bill would be seen as blowing a hole in the deficit. (Never mind that the SGR, which has led to all of the accumulated cuts and costs we are now facing today, was created by the Congress in 1997, when the GOP was in control, and that past Congresses, Republican and Democratic alike, have failed to take the steps needed to fix it. The SGR problem and its cost would be with us today, even if there was no health reform bill.)
It also seems many Democrats have had the equivalent of a death-bed conversion to fiscal responsibility, or at least a make-believe version of fiscal responsibility that says that pretending to save taxpayer's money is the same as saving them money. The Senators know that the $245 billion price tag for SGR repeal is itself a budget fiction, because it requires that we suspend disbelief and assume that Congress will actually allow double-digit cuts in physician payments to go into effect. They won't and they know it. Medicare will end up spending the $245 billion anyway, but that doesn't matter, as long as the Senators can tell voters that they didn't vote for a bill that would add to the deficit.
ACP has released a statement that is harshly critical of the Senate vote and vowing to continue to push for SGR repeal. The statement takes on the charge that S. 1776 was offered in exchange for physician support of health reform:
"The American College of Physicians rejects the cynical charge made by some that physicians' support for health care reform is conditioned on repeal of the SGR. Instead, ACP supports health care reform because we believe that all Americans should have access to affordable care. Our positions on the pending health reform proposals will continue to be based on how they align with ACP's long-standing policies on ensuring coverage, reversing a catastrophic shortage of primary care physicians, and testing and implementing new models of payment and delivery to align positive incentives with the value of care provided. At the same time, we believe that repeal of the SGR is necessary to provide the stability needed to achieve real and lasting physician payment reform, to implement payment reforms to support the value of care provided by primary care physicians, and to assure seniors' access to care."
Where does this leave us on the SGR? Right where we were in . . . 2008, 2007, 2006, 2005, 2004, 2003, 2002, and 2001 . . . with Congress saying that they know the SGR has to go, that they won't allow the cuts to go into effect, that they know that have to find a permanent solution, but not now, some other time. Like the Chicago Cubs and a World Series appearance, it seems it is always "wait til next year" when it comes to repeal of the SGR.
Today's question: What is your opinion on the Senate's rejection of SGR repeal?