Five months after the federal government reached its debt limit and 16 days after much of the federal government was shut down, Congress and the White House finally reached an agreement Oct. 16 when the House gave its approval to a Senate-brokered bill that then was signed by President Obama.
Wednesday night's agreement funds the federal government until Jan. 15 at current spending levels and raises the debt ceiling until Feb. 7.
In a prepared statement, AAFP President Reid Blackwelder, M.D., of Kingsport, Tenn., said the last-minute, short-term increase in the debt limit was merely a postponement and not a solution.
"Millions of elderly and disabled Americans, as well as military families, depend on a stable Medicare system that ensures they have access to the doctors they need," Blackwelder said. "Pushing vital decisions, such as whether to lift the debt ceiling, to the last minute is no way to serve constituents."
The short-term agreement is intended to give legislators and the Obama administration more time to work out their differences regarding the budget, the debt ceiling and other issues that brought most functions of the federal government to a standstill Oct. 1. Extending the debt ceiling allowed the government to avoid, for now, a default on U.S. debt that likely would have had grave consequences for the United States and world economies.
Thousands of furloughed federal workers were expected to be back at work today as government agencies, including the CDC and FDA, resumed their normal duties.
Wednesday's agreement also may allow Congress to turn its attention to some other important business. The sustainable growth rate (SGR) formula is scheduled to trigger a nearly 25 percent cut to Medicare physician payments on Jan. 1. As it did with the debt ceiling, Congress repeatedly has offered short-term fixes to address the SGR rather than a long-term solution.
"The annual, erratic approach to postponing double-digit Medicare cuts required by the flawed sustainable growth rate formula has already undermined the medical community's confidence in Congress' commitment to ensuring health security for beneficiaries," Blackwelder said. "By repeatedly taking the debt ceiling to the brink, Congress further destabilizes the reliability of Medicare and threatens further disruption of the financial viability of physician practices."
Blackwelder pointed out that legislators contend they want to improve the quality and reduce the costs of health care, but failing to pass a long-term increase in the debt limit works against those goals.
"(Congress) must take the appropriate steps to meet the promises made to stabilize our nation's economy, restore the federal government to full capacity, and ensure access to physician services by ending the decade-old downward spiral of the SGR," said Blackwelder. "Only by doing so can patients be assured of access to the care they need, when they need it."