"There's more serious momentum" this year for a long-term fix, House Minority Whip Steny Hoyer of Maryland told reporters Tuesday.
Congress this week approved a one-year measure to keep a 1997 budget-cutting law from biting too deeply into federal reimbursement payments for physicians who treat Medicare patients. If lawmakers hadn't acted, doctors would have seen their Medicare payments reduced by about 24 percent beginning Tuesday.
Letting the so-called "doc fix" expire would save the federal government billions of dollars annually, but some doctors had threatened to stop seeing Medicare patients if their payments were cut.
It was the 17th time Congress has approved a short-term fix to avoid a cut. Some lawmakers from both parties — including Hoyer — opposed the stopgap measure in the hope of finding a permanent solution to the poorly designed Medicare payment formula.
But with cost estimates for a 10-year fix about $130 billion to $135 billion — some $50 billion less than in recent years — Hoyer says lawmakers realize the timing is right for a permanent solution.
"Knowing full well that we're going to do this annually, and knowing full well the inevitable cost is going to escalate … right now is the cheapest time to do it," he said.
The Democrat added the push for permanent fix is bipartisan, as several veteran House Republicans he has spoken to "believe that fixing it now makes economic sense."
In the Senate, new Finance Committee Chairman Ron Wyden, D-Ore., also has vowed to continue to push for an overhaul of the Medicare physician payment system.
The major stumbling block is how to pay for it. Wyden has suggested using savings from the wind-down of the Afghanistan war. But Republicans say those savings are phony because the troop withdrawal long has been planned. Instead, they have demanded that savings come from President Obama's Affordable Care Act.
Some lawmakers have suggested using savings from the automatic "sequester" spending set into motion by a 2011 deal to raise the federal debt limit. But Hoyer is opposed to such a move, saying that is a budgeting "artifice" and a "fraud."