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Bush administration freezing cuts in Medicare fees

WASHINGTON - The Bush administration said Monday it is freezing a scheduled 10 percent fee cut for doctors who treat Medicare patients, giving Congress time to act to prevent the cuts when lawmakers return from a July 4 recess.

Physicians have been running ads hinting that as a result of the cuts, patients may find doctors less willing to treat them. The administration's delay in implementing the cuts, which had been scheduled to go into effect Tuesday, spares lawmakers from having to use the recess to explain to seniors why they didn't do the job before leaving town.

Kevin Schweers, a spokesman for the Department of Health and Human Services, said Monday the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services will hold doctors' Medicare claims for services delivered on or after July 1. Claims for services received on before June 30 will be processed as usual, he said.

Congress, not willing to face millions of angry seniors at the polls in November, will almost certainly act quickly when it returns to Washington the week of July 7 to prevent the cuts in payments for some 600,000 doctors who treat Medicare patients. The cuts were scheduled because of a formula that requires fee cuts when spending exceeds established goals.

HHS Secretary Mike Leavitt had promised Friday that his agency 'will take all steps available to the department under the law to minimize the impact on providers and beneficiaries.' On Monday, the department used its administrative tools to delay implementing the scheduled 10.6 percent cuts.

'By holding claims for health care services that are delivered on or after July 1, CMS will not be making any payments on the 10.6 percent reduction until July 15 at the earliest,' Schweers said.

Almost every year, Congress finds a way to block such cuts. But last week the Senate fell just one vote short of the 60 needed to proceed to legislation that would have stopped the cut.

In a particularly vitriolic exchange, Democrats and Republicans blamed each other for what Dr. Nancy H. Nielsen, president of the American Medical Association, said has put the country 'at the brink of a Medicare meltdown.'

'Seniors need continued access to the doctors they trust. It's urgent that Congress make that happen,' the AMA said in ads taken out in Capitol Hill newspapers read by members of Congress and their aides.

Doctors have complained for years that Medicare payments have failed to cover rising costs.

This year majority Democrats homed in on cutting the Medicare Advantage program, which is an ideological issue for both parties. The Bush administration and Republicans like Medicare Advantage because it lets the elderly and disabled choose to get their health benefits through private insurers rather than through traditional Medicare. Democrats argued that government payments to the insurers are too generous.

The White House warned that President Bush would be urged to veto a bill that contained cuts to Medicare Advantage.

That didn't stop the House last Tuesday from approving the legislation 355-59, well above the margin needed to override a veto. Every Democrat supported it, and Republicans, bucking their president, voted 129-59 for it.

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Associated Press Writer Kevin Freking contributed to this report.

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The bill is H.R. 6331.

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