Hoping the Senate will act soon to stave off the cuts, the Obama administration directed Medicare billing contractors to hold off processing claims for 10 business days. Medicare normally takes 14 days to pay doctors, so there would be no reduction in reimbursement if lawmakers move quickly.
"Our No. 1 goal is to avoid disrupting payments to physicians during this time," said Jonathan Blum, who directs the Medicare division that handles payments to providers.
But the American Medical Association assailed lawmakers for allowing the cuts to go through, saying it shows the political system is failing to address manageable problems with health care, let alone big challenges like covering the uninsured and trying to slow rising costs.
"Our message to the U.S. Senate is to stop playing games with Medicare patients and the physicians who care for them," said Dr. James Rohack, president of the doctors' group.
Funding to temporarily stave off the cuts was part of a bill passed last week by the House. But the Senate failed to act on the one-month fix because Republican Sen. Jim Bunning of Kentucky objected that the $10 billion measure would add to the deficit.
The Medicare cuts are the consequence of a 1990s deficit reduction measure that Congress has routinely waived for years. But every time the cuts are postponed, they only get bigger in percentage terms, making a permanent fix more costly and difficult.
Republican leaders in Congress have pledged to help pass legislation to temporarily restore the funding. But there's no consensus on a long-term solution. The Obama administration and most Democrats favor repealing the 1990s law that called for the cuts to doctors, arguing that it never worked in the first place.
The AMA's Rohack said the instability is damaging the popular health insurance program for seniors and is a harbinger of bigger problems, if Congress fails to act this year on a health care overhaul. The doctor cuts are a prime example of why postponing action won't work when it comes to medical costs and the uninsured.
Coincidentally, the Medicare cuts come as the doctors' group opens a major issue advocacy conference in Washington this week. Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius is scheduled to address the AMA on Tuesday.