Congress Passes Key Medicare Bill

This article originally appeared on Health Beat.

When Ted Kennedy came onto the Senate floor, his colleagues cheered.

He was there to vote on the bill that would prevent a 10.6 percent cut to physicians who treat Medicare patients.

Just before Congress broke for the July 4 holiday, the bill missed the 60 votes needed to pass by just one vote.

Today, Kennedy, who is battling a brain tumor, brought that vote to the Senate floor. "Aye," the 76-year-old Kennedy said, grinning and making a thumbs-up gesture as he registered his vote.

Meanwhile, it appeared that Republican members of the Senate had been released to vote as they wished after it became apparent that the 60-vote threshold would be met. Pressure from seniors, the AARP , and the AMA had been mounting on members who voted against the bill June 26.

Republicans resisted voting for the legislation because while it spares physicians, it would reduce the fat subsidy that Congress has been giving private insurers who offer Medicare Advantage. President Bush and Senate Republicans had been strongly against any cut in the Advantage program.

In the end, the vote was 69 to 30 in favor of the bill. President Bush had threatened to veto the bill if it passed the Senate, but 67 votes make it veto-proof. And since the House has already voted 355-59 in favor of the bill, Congress appears able to over-ride any veto.

According to Roll Call, 18 Republicans broke with their party to pass the House-backed bill.

Sighs of relief could be heard on the Democratic side as lawmakers, beginning with Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison (R-Texas), chairwoman of the Republican Steering Committee, joined with Democrats to pass the bill. Hutchison's Texas colleague, Sen. John Cornyn (R), who was on the receiving end of an American Medical Association ad blitz slamming his pre-recess position, also ended up voting for the bill.

Other Republicans who voted to proceed to debate on the politically charged bill included Sens. Elizabeth Dole (N.C.), George Voinovich (Ohio), Susan Collins (Maine), Norm Coleman (Minn.), Pat Roberts (Kan.) Gordon Smith (Ore.), Lisa Murkowski (Alaska), Bob Corker (Tenn.), Johnny Isakson (Ga.), Arlen Specter (Pa.) and Mel Martinez (Fla.).

McCain did not appear.

McCain's Predicament

Today, Bloomberg News did an excellent job of explaining why McCain might not show up:

"Senator John McCain will be on the spot, in person or by his absence, when the Senate takes up a measure today to halt a cut in Medicare payments to doctors.

"Republicans have stalled Democratic-backed legislation to reverse the 10.6 percent cut in doctors' fees by reducing payments to insurance companies instead. Democrats on June 26 fell one senator short of the 60 they will need to force a floor vote. Two senators were absent: Edward Kennedy, a Democrat from Massachusetts who is being treated for brain cancer, and McCain of Arizona, the presumptive Republican presidential nominee.

"For McCain, whose schedule indicates he will campaign today in Pennsylvania and Ohio and whose office won't say whether he'll show up in the Senate, the vote is a political dilemma. "

"In one case McCain could be voting against his party and in the other he could be voting against an issue framed as pro-senior and pro-physician,'' Robert Blendon, a health policy professor at Harvard University's School of Public Health in Boston, said in a telephone interview yesterday."

It is worth noting that McCain is one of few Republican senators who voted against the original legislation that created Medicare Advantage and provided what many view as windfall subsidies for private insurers.

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