Congress passes bill allowing military families and retirees to keep their doctors

On Thursday, the House passed legislation allowing military families and retirees covered under Medicare and TRICARE to continue seeing their regular doctors. The Senate approved the bill on Wednesday.

The bill, the 2010 Medicare and Medicaid Extenders Act, would amend the Medicare physician payment formula -- which also sets payment levels for TRICARE -- to allow doctors enrolled in the programs to receive current levels of compensation through the end of 2011. If the House fails to pass similar legislation, a 25 percent cut to Medicare and TRICARE physician payments would take effect on Jan. 1, 2011.

"With a double-digit payment cut, some doctors would stop seeing Medicare and TRICARE patients," Sen. Chuck Grassley, R-Iowa, said in a statement on Wednesday. Grassley is ranking member of the Finance Committee, the panel that has jurisdiction over Medicare. "This bipartisan legislation will help ensure that older Americans and military families can continue to get quality health care," he added.

To maintain the 2010 levels of compensation for Medicare and TRICARE doctors, the bill would amend the current policy for overpayments of the health care affordability tax credit. Under the current policy, individuals and families who receive an overpayment are required to return a fixed amount ($250 for individuals and $400 for families) regardless of income bracket. The proposed legislation would require paybacks based on the income bracket of the recipient.

"I'm encouraged that we were able to work together in a bipartisan way and protect access to care for America's 45 million Medicare beneficiaries in a fiscally responsible manner," Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., said in a statement.

Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., also applauded the Senate's vote as a bipartisan victory. "This bipartisan agreement gives peace of mind to seniors and military families in Nevada and across the nation," Reid said in a statement.

The bill, now awaiting President Obama's signature, also extends the life of a number of provisions including Transitional Medical Assistance -- allowing low-income families to keep Medicare coverage for a limited time after finding a job that makes them ineligible for coverage -- and the Special Diabetes Program, which provided funding for research on the prevention and cure of type 1 diabetes. An extension of protections for rural hospitals and doctors is included in the bill as well.

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