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Editorial: A telling vote on Medicare

Sen. Richard Burr’s office probably received angry calls from senior citizens and doctors last week. The North Carolina senator voted against a bill last week that prevents a 10.6 percent cut in Medicare fees for doctors. The bill passed the Senate last week with the help of Sen. Ted Kennedy, who returned to the Senate for the first time after brain surgery to cast his vote.
That dramatic moment may have caught more people’s attention than the bill itself, but Kennedy’s surprise appearance speaks to the importance of this action. The 10.6 percent cut threatened to make getting health care more difficult for seniors.
An American Medical Association survey found that up to 60 percent of doctors would begin limiting the number of Medicare patients they saw if the cut went into effect. That would be a severe blow to the health of many seniors, some of whom already feel they’re treated like second-class citizens in the health-care maze.
Elizabeth Dole, North Carolina’s other senator, did not join Burr and most Senate Republicans in the vote. She voted to avert the cut, both before the Senate’s July 4 break ó when the bill failed by one vote ó and last Wednesday, when it passed by a healthy margin. On the first vote, she was one of only a handful of Republicans supporting the measure; more Republicans joined in when they saw where the second vote was headed.
Dole sided with people who rely on conventional Medicare. “The proposed payment cuts to physicians who serve Medicare patients would have severely limited critical access to care for this vulnerable population, especially in rural areas,” Dole said in a statement. It should be noted that Dole is seeking re-election this year. Burr is not up for re-election yet.
Burr says he based his vote not on the cut to doctors but rather on the alternative cut it mandated. “I am very disappointed this has come at the unnecessary expense of Medicare Advantage, a program enjoyed by over 200,000 North Carolinians,” Burr said in a statement. Medicare Advantage is a private health plan that receives payments from Medicare and is used by 20 percent of those on Medicare.
That’s the same reasoning cited by President Bush when he vows to veto the bill, even though it appears an override will succeed. The cut to Medicare Advantage sets back his goal of increasing the private sector’s role in senior health care and giving consumers more choices. The administration estimates that 2 million of the 9.6 million people on Medicare Advantage will now drop off.
At least they have a place to land ó on regular Medicare, without a 10 percent reduction in doctors’ reimbursements. One of Congress’ greatest responsibilities is keeping Medicare strong. That would hardly be the result if Congress took action that made more doctors turn Medicare patients away.

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