Congress Approves Measures on Medicare Physician Payments, HSAs
The 109th Congress adjourned on Saturday after the passage of a bill (HR 6408) that includes a provision to reverse a 5.1% reduction in Medicare physician reimbursements scheduled to take effect in January 2007, the Washington Post reports (Weisman, Washington Post, 12/10).
The legislation would maintain the current level of Medicare physician reimbursements next year and would provide a 1.5% increase in reimbursements to physicians who agree to report data on certain quality-of-care measures. Under the bill, the increase in Medicare reimbursements would "be based on whether the physician reports the data, but the system lays the groundwork for higher payments to better-performing physicians," the Wall Street Journal reports (Lueck, Wall Street Journal, 12/11).
The legislation also would provide $4.9 billion for health benefits for retired coal miners and mine reclamation (Rogers, Wall Street Journal, 12/11).
In addition, "Republican lawmakers, with little public debate, quietly added a billion-dollar" provision to the bill to encourage the use of health savings accounts, the Post reports (Birnbaum/Montgomery, Washington Post, 12/11). The legislation would eliminate a requirement that annual contributions to HSAs not exceed the amount of the annual deductibles for the health plans to which they are linked.
"Many people with HSAs have health insurance deductibles at or near the minimum required to set up the accounts -- about $1,000 or $2,000 a year," but the bill would increase the maximum annual contribution to $2,850 for individuals and $5,650 for families, the Journal reports.
Rep. Eric Cantor (R-Va.), who sponsored the provision, said, "It's not the be-all, end-all or a panacea, but it is a step in promoting personal choice in health care."
Paul Dennett, vice president for health policy at the American Benefits Council, said, "It helps HSAs fulfill their purpose as savings accounts and not just as annual spending accounts."
According to the Journal, the "changes represent a last-ditch expansion of HSAs before the takeover by Democrats, who tend to view the accounts as helping the healthy and wealthy at the expense of taxpayers" (Wall Street Journal, 12/9).
In related news, incoming House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) on Saturday reviewed her priorities for the first 100 hours of the 110th Congress, the San Francisco Chronicle reports. During a speech in San Francisco, Pelosi said that her priorities include legislation to allow CMS to negotiate directly with pharmaceutical companies for discounts on medications under the Medicare prescription drug benefit and to promote stem cell research (Egelko, San Francisco Chronicle, 12/10).
Meanwhile, incoming Senate Budget Committee Chair Kent Conrad (D-N.D.) said that the "spiraling" federal budget deficit will limit the ability of Democrats to implement their agenda, which includes legislation to eliminate the "doughnut hole" coverage gap in the Medicare prescription drug benefit (Havemann, Los Angeles Times, 12/10).
- Norman Ornstein, Roll Call: "To say that the 109th Congress left not with a bang but a whimper would be an insult to whimperers everywhere," American Enterprise Institute resident scholar Ornstein writes in a Roll Call opinion piece. Ornstein adds, "We saw the continuing erosion of the deliberative process, with few extended debates in committees or subcommittees or on the House or Senate floor about big issues" (Ornstein, Roll Call, 12/11).
- Sen. Bill Frist (R-Tenn.), USA Today: Democrats used "obstructionist tactics" to block "popular proposals to make it easier for small businesses to buy health coverage for their employees, reform our broken medical liability system, do more adult stem cell research and increase the minimum wage," Frist writes in a USA Today opinion piece. "Improving things will require a strong mutual commitment on the part of the White House and the leadership in both houses of Congress to reform the spending process, fix entitlements, tackle earmarks and eliminate the deficit," Frist concludes (Frist, USA Today, 12/11).