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Alternative bill considered on doctors’ fees

Associated Press / October 21, 2009

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WASHINGTON - Legislation giving doctors $247 billion in increased Medicare fees over the next decade veered toward collapse yesterday in the Senate, a victim of bipartisan concern over growing federal deficits.

Instead, key lawmakers worked privately on a far less costly bill that would avert a 21 percent cut scheduled to take effect on Jan. 1 and give physicians an increase of 0.5 percent in 2010 and 2011.

Senator Kent Conrad, a North Dakota Democrat, said he and Senator Charles Grassley, an Iowa Republican, were discussing a possible compromise that would cost $25 billion over two years and - unlike the original measure - not raise federal deficits.

The nation’s debt “doubled during the last administration and if we don’t do something, it’s going to double again in the next eight years,’’ Conrad said.

Anything less than the 10-year bill would mark a defeat for the American Medical Association, which has made a priority of legislation to create a new program to assure doctors reliable annual fee increases. The organization has aired television commercials in several states at a cost of $1 million or more and dispatched top officials to the capitol in recent days to lobby lawmakers.

“Congress needs to fix this problem once and for all,’’ AMA president Dr. J. James Rohack said in a written statement at day’s end. “No more band-aids.’’

The developments occurred as key lawmakers and White House aides met for the second straight day in the Capitol in hopes of agreeing on comprehensive health care legislation that can reach the Senate floor by the first week of November. Participants in the talks said no decisions had been made about key issues, including proposals to allow the government to sell insurance as a means of holding down prices charged by private insurers.