Congress has returned for the lame duck session of the 113th Congress. As has been the case for as many years as many of your D.C. staff can remember, the repeal of the flawed Sustainable Growth Rate is a primary focus of our legislative efforts during this brief time that Congress has remaining before the end of the year.
As many will recall, in February 2014, Congress came to a bipartisan, bicameral agreement for repeal of the SGR formula and overhaul of the Medicare physician payment system. The SGR Repeal and Medicare Provider Payment Modernization Act of 2014 (S. 2000/H.R. 4015 – the SGR Repeal Act) was the product of a yearlong collaborative effort between Congress and key stakeholders, including the American College of Surgeons. In fact, ACS was the only physician group to testify before all three congressional committees of jurisdiction (House Ways and Means, House Energy and Commerce, and Senate Finance) during the process culminating in the legislation.
Congress was subsequently unable to agree on offsets to pay for the cost of the SGR Repeal Act. This is extremely unfortunate and, in sum, represents a classic example of partisanship trumping good policy. This is particularly significant when one considers the exemplary bipartisan and bicameral efforts that culminated in the legislation and the fact that the $170 billion cost of the 17 temporary “patches” Congress has utilized over the past 11 years far surpasses the estimated cost of the current agreed-upon policy.
In September, representatives from five major physician organizations, including ACS, made visits to offices of congressional leaders specifically to urge action on S. 2000/H.R. 4015 during the lame duck session. Subsequently, letters urging action on the SGR Repeal Act have been sent to House leaders by the Pennsylvania congressional delegation; the House Doctors’ Caucus; and 114 additional members who signed a bipartisan letter circulated by Rep. Reid Ribble (R-Wis.) and Rep. Kurt Schrader (D-Ore.). When the signatures on these three letters are combined with those from similar correspondence circulated by Rep. Bill Flores (R-Tex.) and Rep. Dan Maffei (D-N.Y.) and sent to House leaders in November 2013, a total of 287 of the 435 members of the House of Representatives have indicated their support for passage of H.R. 4015.
Fellows received an e-mail earlier in October requesting that they contact their individual member of Congress to urge action on the SGR Repeal Act. The message is simple: The physician community has united around a sound bicameral and bipartisan payment reform policy that will permanently repeal the flawed SGR formula and make sound reforms to modernize Medicare physician payment. It is now Congress’ job to develop bipartisan, bicameral offsets and pass the legislation. For Fellows who have not taken the opportunity to act, they can still do so by logging on to www.surgeonsvoice.org and following the links for “Take Action Now.”
There is certainly a compelling argument that action during this lame duck session represents a real opportunity to permanently address and resolve the SGR. All seem to agree that we are long past the time to address this chronic, festering issue. Lame duck sessions also present opportunities for legislators who will not be returning to proceed without the considerations of short-term political consequences. For those returning for the 114th Congress, an opportunity to address a recurrent problem, clean it off the plate, and start fresh with the new Congress in January is also very appealing. Finally, one can also argue, as was done by a prominent member of the House Doctors’ Caucus, that the lame duck session presents an opportunity to more palatably return to bipartisan cooperation on the issue – a sort of “Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid Theory” of jumping off the cliff together.
Without action, the latest short-term patch is scheduled to expire on March 31, 2015. At that time, another patch, the 18th, would be necessary to preclude the cuts to Medicare physician payment that all, even Medicare’s Board of Trustees, agree Congress is likely never to allow to take place for fear of the political repercussions following such cuts from seniors and the physician community. Short-term patches obviously do not solve the problem. It is reasonable to predict that any short-term patch put in place in March would be set to expire around the time of the next debt limit debate, currently predicted to be just before the August recess in the summer. That one would be the 19th. Thus, to quote a famous American philosopher and poet, “The road goes on forever and the party never ends.”