In truly dramatic fashion last week, United States Senator Edward Kennedy of Massachussetts, still under treatment for brain cancer, returned to the Senate chamber to cast a vote for a Democratic bill to improve Medicare. His action provided the impetus for the bill to pass by a 69- 30 bipartisan vote.
President George W. Bush has threatened to veto the bill, but there are enough votes to override it if those who voted for it last Wednesday vote for it again.
The primary significance of the bill is that it prevents a mandated 10.6 percent reduction in Medicare payments to doctors who treat the 44 million seniors in the nation's healthcare program. If the bill had not passed and the mandated cuts had gone through, many doctors could have walked away from the program, which would have hurt the program badly. For this reason, the American Medical Association (AMA), made up of doctors throughout the country, had campaigned hard for the bill's passage. More than 90 percent of the doctors in the U.S. participate in Medicare.
The bill also grants these doctors a small increase in payments; however, to do this it reduces payments to the privately operated Medicare Advantage programs favored by Bush. These programs, operated by private insurance companies, receive 13 percent more for seniors who leave the Medicare program and join the private plan.
The approved bill, which had already passed the House by a large margin, also provides other Medicare improvements. In her statement praising her colleagues for passing the bill, Senator Hillary Rodham Clinton (D- N.Y.) stated: "Today we made an important step in the right direction by approving a series of reforms that I have championed to improve our capacity to provide preventative care, to use electronic prescribing to reduce medication errors and to expand our ability to measure the quality of care patients receive. These critical reforms are an important step toward charting a new course for Medicare and our healthcare system."
Referring in her statement to what the effect would have been if the bill had not passed, Clinton stated: "Haphazard cuts that undermine our healthcare system would have made our healthcare crisis worse, not better, and placed even greater burdens on healthcare providers across New York that are already struggling with skyrocketing healthcare costs, declining reimbursements and caring for a growing number of uninsured."
Also praising passage of the bill, the Medicare Rights Center (MRC), a major backer of the Medicare program and patient advocate, declared: "This legislation enacts long overdue improvements to the Medicare program. It will protect access to doctors for the 44 million Americans who receive health insurance through Medicare. It treats fairly over 90 percent of the U.S. physicians who see Medicare patients."
The MRC statement continued: "More, it eliminates bureaucratic obstacles that prevent millions of low-income people with Medicare from receiving assistance with their medical and prescription drug costs. It promises an end to coverage rules that discriminate against people with mental illness and improves Medicare's coverage of preventive services and prescription drugs. President Bush must recognize that this vote reflects the will of the American people and sign this bill into law."