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Doctors: Congress should act fast on Medicare pay

By Charles Riley, staff reporter

NEW YORK (CNNMoney.com) -- Just back from recess, Congress is staring at a deadline that will result in a dramatic cut in Medicare payments to doctors if no action is taken.

Lawmakers have implemented the so-called "doc fix" 10 times in the past eight years, four times this year alone. But what has become a routine event still attracts a swarm of lobbyists.

The American Medical Association (AMA) is planning to flood Congressional phone lines and take out ads in Washington newspapers Wednesday in hopes of pressuring lawmakers to move quickly on the fix.

"Everyone in Congress knows that this cut will cause problems for seniors, and the AMA is working to turn that concern into action before time runs out this month," AMA President Cecil Wilson said in a statement.

If Congress fails to act before the Dec. 1 deadline, the Medicare reimbursement rate for physicians will be cut by 23%, with further cuts slated in later years.

Timing on legislative action is unclear as members use the start of the session to sort out priorities. Senate aides on both sides of the aisle tell CNN they expect action on the issue, but are unsure how long any fix would last.

It would be expensive to implement a permanent fix or even a five-year fix, and the length of the extension is likely to be a key sticking point as legislation moves through the House and Senate on its way to President Obama's desk.

The American Medical Association issued a statement on Election Day asking lawmakers to prevent the cut in fees from taking effect for 13 months.

The reason the fix is so important: If reimbursement rates are cut, some physicians might stop serving Medicare patients due to lower profit margins. Some 43 million people, mostly senior citizens, receive Medicare benefits.

The root problem is a 1997 law that requires that doctors' Medicare rates be adjusted each year based on a formula tied to the health of the economy. The law says rates should be cut every year if necessary to keep Medicare in the black.

President Obama has voiced support for finding a more permanent solution, but that is unlikely to happen during a lame-duck session, which is not traditionally thought of as a highly productive legislative period.

After the last doc fix was passed, Obama called the system of temporary fixes "untenable."

-CNN's Ted Barrett and Evan Glass contributed to this report. To top of page

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