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House Passes Medicare Legislation

EUREKA, Calif. -- In a matter of days, the federal government is scheduled to start paying doctors 10.6 percent less when they treat Medicare patients.

With that in mind, the House overwhelmingly passed legislation Tuesday that would void the cut and pay for it by trimming payments to private health insurers. North Coast Congressman Mike Thompson, who helped craft the bill as a member of the Ways and Means Committee, said the bill will directly impact his First Congressional District.

"Medicare providers in rural areas like Northern California often lack the resources they need to serve the public," Thompson said in a press release. "This bill increases payment for sole community and critical access hospitals, increases payments for rural ambulance services and ensures physicians are fairly reimbursed for Medicare services."

The legislation passed 355-59 despite a veto threat by President George W. Bush and protests from the insurance industry. It had broad support from doctors, hospitals and pharmacists. A vote against the measure would have risked alienating those important constituencies just as lawmakers get ready to break for the July 4th recess.

Now, the job of avoiding a pay cut for doctors falls to the Senate, where lawmakers were working behind the scenes Tuesday to craft a compromise that would gain the administration's support or generate enough votes to overcome a veto.

Some 600,000 doctors care for Medicare patients. Payment rates are set to drop by 10.6 percent on July 1 as a result of a formula that calls for cuts when spending exceeds established goals.

According to Thompson's office, data suggests that more than 60 percent of California physicians would leave the Medicare program or stop taking new Medicare patients if the cuts were to be implemented. Consequently, Thompson said the bill is really about access.

"Although this bill stops cuts to physician payments, it is not about how much we pay doctors," he said in the release. "This bill is about access to health care for patients. When doctors don't get reimbursed, they often can't continue serving Medicare patients."

The Associated Press contributed to this report

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