Senate passes Medicare bill, Kennedy returns for vote

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After keeping the healthcare community in a state of uncertainty for several days, the Senate late Wednesday passed the Medicare bill that continues the exceptions process for Medicare Part B therapy caps and delays other onerous healthcare regulations.

Senators passed H.R. 6331, the Medicare Improvements for Patients and Providers Act of 2008, after passing by 69-30 a much-needed cloture motion, which allowed debate to begin on the bill. Sen. Edward Kennedy (D-MA), who has been undergoing treatment for a brain tumor, made a dramatic appearance to cast a vote for cloture and a voice vote for the bill.

The bill, which was earlier passed by the House, now heads to President Bush for his signature. He has vowed to veto it because of provisions that would reduce payments to Medicare Advantage Plans as a way to pay for the legislation.

Sponsored by Reps. Charles Rangel (D-NY) and John Dingell (D-MI), the bill would extend the therapy caps exceptions process for Part B therapy caps by 18 months. The process expired on June 30, leaving open the possibility that some nursing homes residents would not receive therapy. The bill also would freeze physician payments for 2008 and provide a 1.1% increase for physicians in 2009. A 10.6% freeze on physician payments was set to take effect July 1, but was temporarily suspended. The legislation also would delay for 18 months an unpopular competitive bidding program for durable medical equipment.