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Policy: Labor

Congress this week tackles Medicare payments, jobless pay and employer mandate

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Politics,Congress,Susan Ferrechio,Labor,Health Care,Medicare and Medicaid,PennAve,Employer Mandate,Unemployment

The Senate this week will take up medicare payment legislation and a jobless benefits bill while the House votes to redefine the full time work week under Obamacare and clear a Ukraine loan and sanctions bill.

Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid has scheduled a test vote Monday on what lawmakers have come to call the “doc fix,” a bill that prevents a scheduled 24 percent cut in federal reimbursements to doctors who treat Medicare patients. The bill is a patch, and not a permanent fix to the Sustainable Growth Rate, which is what causes the regular cuts in pay that Congress must then undo through legislation.

Both Democrats and Republicans were working on a permanent repeal of the SGR, but with the current patch expiring on April 1, leaders in both parties decided to move ahead with a one-year fix. The move angered some lawmakers in the House, which moved the bill with a simple voice vote.

Leaders in both parties said they sought a way to repeal it permanently. But the short-term legislation was needed to avoid the risk of seniors losing medical care if the current patch is allowed to expire and reimbursement rates plummet, they said.

“This is the wrong way to go, however you know, as I, that if this does not pass and docs do not get the SGR that seniors may be turned away from their Medicare physician,” Democratic Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, of California, said.

The doc fix bill also includes a provision to delay by one year the October 2014 implementation of the massive expansion of the medical coding system.

The new system will require medical coding used by health care providers and insurers to expand from 14,000 codes to 69,000 codes. It is expected to be costly for many doctors and practices and there is a general sense that few are prepared for the changes.

The Senate will also take up legislation to extend federal unemployment insurance benefits by five months.

The legislation has already cleared a critical test hurdle and because it was co-authored by five Republicans, it is expected to pass the Senate as early as Monday.

The bill would cost nearly $10 million and would provide retroactive benefits for those who qualified for the program when it expired on Dec. 28.

The House has so far rejected the idea of taking up the bill. House Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio, said it lacked provisions to create jobs and said it was “unworkable,” because state employment officials would not be able to determine who is legitimately entitled to retroactive benefits.

Instead, the House will continue tackling perceived overreach by the Obama administration, with a vote on the Save American Workers Act, sponsored by Rep. Todd Young, R-Ind. The bill would repeal the 30 hour definition of full time employment under the Affordable Care Act. Critics of the 30-hour threshold say it has caused employers to reduce hours and lay off workers to avoid the new law's “employer mandate,” which requires that they provide health insurance for full-time employees.

“Americans are seeing their hours cut and their paychecks reduced as a result of the employer mandate, a centerpiece of the law,” Young said.

The bill would restore the definition of “full time” to 40 hours per week.

Republican leaders also plan to call a vote on a measure that would require the Congressional Budget Office to provide an in-depth analysis of the long term economic impact of costly legislation.

“The Pro-Growth Budgeting Act gives policymakers a dynamic assessment of how legislation under consideration will affect the nation's gross domestic product, job creation, and business investment,” Rep. Tom Price, R-Ga., the bill's sponsor, said.

The House will also clear legislation providing $1 billion in loan guarantees to Ukraine and authorizing President Obama to issue additional sanctions on Russia, which invaded Ukraine and has taken over Crimea.

The House had passed a slightly different Ukraine measure, which authorized $10 million for Voice of America and Radio Free Europe to provide expanded programming to Ukraine and neighboring countries in an effort to counter Russian propaganda.

The House will now simply endorse the Senate bill and vote separately on the Voice of America measure.

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Susan Ferrechio

Chief Congressional Correspondent
The Washington Examiner