Senate Approves COBRA Extension Bill

March 12, 2010

It was reported on Wednesday that the United States Senate voted 62-36 to approve a $138 billion bill that temporarily halts cuts in Medicare payments to doctors, and also extends COBRA premium subsidies and Medicaid assistance.

Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D – NV) said in a statement to the press, “This week’s bill helps those who have been hit the hardest. Among other things, we’re going to extend unemployment benefits to those looking for work, cut taxes for families and businesses, and protect Medicaid so low-income families can afford healthcare.”

Specifically this new bill will postpone a 21% cut in Medicare physician payments until October 1, 2010, though physician groups are still hoping that Congress will offer a more permanent solution to Medicare’s sustainable growth-rate (SGR) formula, which is based on the health of the economy at any given moment. Payment cuts to doctors have been looming since 2003. This SGR measure is likely to cost almost $7.5 billion between now and 2020.

In addition, the bill contains a six-month extension of additional federal financial aid to the state Medicaid programs, and extends COBRA and unemployment insurance benefits through the end of this year.

The bill is not unopposed. Naysayers argue that it isn’t fully offset, and will add more than $100 billion to the federal deficit over the next ten years. Senator George LeMieux (R – FL) said during floor debate that while some of the programs in question may be good for the states in the immediate future, “…at some point a senator has to stand up and say … no more bankrupting the country.”

With Senate approval, the bill has now been sent back to the House of Representatives, which already passed an earlier version of it. As of close of business on Wednesday, it was still uncertain whether there would be a conference between the Senate and House, or if the House would simply vote on the bill as altered by the Senate, before passing it along to the President.