Medicare, the Budget, and Our Exec
By Jerome Connolly, PT, CAE
May 5, 2015
I was hoping to dedicate this column to a summary of the successful passage of Medicare legislation that would have fully repealed and reformed both the Medicare therapy cap and the sustainable growth rate (SGR) formula used to calculate our payments—but alas, as of this writing, Congress has not quite finished the job.
The House of Representatives did pass H.R. 2 on March 26 and the bill does include a repeal and replacement for the dysfunctional SGR formula. After transmitting the bill to the Senate, the House recessed for a two-week spring break. Meanwhile, the Senate was engaged in a marathon debate on a budget resolution (the first in years, but more on that later), and could not act on the SGR bill before it also recessed. Actually, there was time for a voice vote, but with three Republican senators objecting, the unanimous consent required for such a maneuver was not present.
So, the Senate left Washington despite the March 31 expiration date of the current SGR waiver and Medicare reimbursement level. Of course, the therapy caps exception process, which always travels with the SGR, also expired at the end of March, so our patients as well as our payments were jeopardized by this action (or lack thereof).
But the House did not include full repeal of the therapy cap in H.R. 2, opting instead to extend the exceptions process through 2017. The decision to separate these two policies that have traveled in tandem since their inception in the same law in 1997 was disappointing to say the least. It also was somewhat mystifying that the House would take care of a physician payment problem but neglect to ensure that patients most in need of rehabilitation therapy were not protected.
When Congress left the job unfinished, we worked aggressively during the recess to urge the Senate to fix the House mistake and include full repeal of the therapy cap in the SGR bill. Our message: Repealing the cap is a full solution that was vetted by and agreed to in the Senate last year. As stakeholders, we have also improved the exceptions process with manual medical review, agreed to report functional limitations, and by doing so lowered the budgetary cost of full repeal. We have acted in good faith, doing everything Congress asked of us. But the House turned its back on beneficiaries this year when they developed the package without Senate input and without including the therapy cap repeal.
Currently, we are activating grassroots and forging a comprehensive stakeholder assault on the Senate emphasizing the importance of therapy cap full repeal to our nation’s seniors. And to underscore the therapy cap as a beneficiary issue, we have been delighted to enlist the support of American Association of Retired Persons (AARP) and its 33 million member grassroots organization. Together we are calling on the Senate to amend H.R. 2 by repealing the beneficiary therapy cap along with the physician payment formula (SGR). It may turn out to be a futile attempt as the Senate may eschew amendments as it will have only about 36 hours to act after reconvening. Otherwise, Medicare claims processing and reimbursements will be severely disrupted. Nevertheless, we intend to make our position known and to advocate on behalf of our Medicare patients. And even if this is not the time the cap is fully repealed, we will not rest until it is.
As mentioned above, the 114th Congress has decided to consider a nonbinding budget resolution, and separate bills were passed by each chamber before the spring recess. This is the first time in six years such a budget bill has been adopted by Congress and was made possible by the Republican takeover of the Senate in the November 2014 elections. Even though the measure does not carry the force of law nor require the president’s signature, it is an important statement for the Republican-controlled Congress and will be held up by the GOP as evidence they are capable of governing, an important demonstration in advance of the 2016 elections, which they hope will award them control of both the executive and legislative branches of government. The GOP’s first months in control of both chambers of Congress were marked by high-profile stumbles and a near-shutdown of the Homeland Security Department.
But translating a budget resolution into an actual budget is a much more difficult endeavor that requires the adoption of spending bills that do have the force of law, if and when they are signed by the president. Congress has until October 1 to accomplish this task, as that date marks the beginning of the 2016 fiscal year.
This budget resolution is merely a blueprint, but it can be enormously valuable in the Republican-controlled Senate where it can be used as framework for Budget Reconciliation, a process by which adoption of an actual budget that reduces the deficit can be approved with a simple majority, not the 60 votes required for most legislation.
This, of course, means the Republicans could avoid the leverage of the filibuster and push through the budget on a party-line vote without Democratic help. Readers may recall that this is the same parliamentary maneuver used by the Democrats in 2010 to push the Affordable Care Act (ACA) over the finish line. It could be considered ironic but fitting that the Republicans would use the same procedure to put repeal of Obamacare on the president’s desk, embedded in an overall deficit-reducing budget. It is difficult to envision any circumstance under which President Obama would sign such a bill into law, but it would doubtless put him in a difficult position, which, of course, is the object of the exercise for Republicans.
Farewell to PPS Executive Director
It has been a positive, productive process working with Laurie Kendall-Ellis over the past five years and I want to add my best wishes to the voices of many as she moves on to lead a larger health care organization in Washington.
In my view, Laurie’s unique background and skillset as a physical therapist, a private practice owner, a Private Practice Section (PPS) and American Physical Therapy Association (APTA) member, and a professional association executive, served the Section well at its stage of organizational development. Among her many notable achievements belong the three PPS Washington Advocacy Conferences—a new endeavor for the Section and a Laurie Kendall-Ellis brainchild—each more successful than the last.
Laurie’s presence, participation, and professionalism were of significant assistance to me as the PPS lobbyist and I know to the entire Section as well. To Laurie, I extend my gratitude and congratulations.
Jerome Connolly, PT, CAE, is a registered federal lobbyist whose firm, Connolly Strategies & Initiatives, has been retained by PPS. A physical therapist by training, he is a former private practitioner who throughout his career has served in leadership roles of PPS and APTA. Connolly also served as APTA’s Senior Vice President for Health Policy from 1995–2001.