I know that it's April 1, but this is not a joke. The U.S. Senate dropped the ball again, and Medicare payment allowances for physicians dropped 21 percent today.
As you will recall from my last post (see "2010 Medicare physician fee schedule: What next?"), on March 2, Congress and the President enacted legislation that extended the 2009 Medicare payment rate through the end of March. This reversed a one-day drop in the fee schedule which occurred after the U.S. Senate failed to pass an extension by the previous deadline of Feb. 28, 2010.
Like deja vu all over again (to quote Yogi Berra), the Senate again failed to pass a bill that would have extended the 2009 payment rate for physicians until April 30. The bill was ready for passage under standard unanimous consent procedures, but Sen. Tom Coburn (R-OK), playing the role previously played by Sen. Jim Bunning (R-KY), objected because the bill was not completely paid for. Then the Senate left for a two-week recess. As a result, the 21-percent reduction in physician payments took effect today.
Once again, the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services (CMS) is trying to play the good guy in this farce. CMS has instructed its contractors to hold claims containing services paid under the fee schedule for the first 10 business days of April, which, according to my calendar, would be through April 14. This hold will only affect claims with dates of service April 1, 2010, and forward. CMS expects the hold will have minimal impact on cash flow because, under the current law, clean electronic claims are not paid any sooner than 14 calendar days (29 days for paper claims) after the date of receipt anyway.
The Senate will return on April 12. Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-NV) has filed a motion to close debate and proceed to consideration of the temporary extenders legislation if there is no unanimous consent at that time. Expectations inside the Beltway are that negotiations between both sides will continue during the recess, and it is likely that the bill will proceed quickly through the Senate when they return.
In the meantime, physicians are left to play the waiting game again and ponder what the punchline is. The situation might actually be funny if it weren't so sad and pathetic at the same time.
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