by Donna Smith

Last Updated: 2009-11-19 18:27:32 -0400 (Reuters Health)

The U.S. House of Representatives voted on Thursday to boost Medicare payments to physicians in a move that could help shore up support from doctors for a sweeping Democratic-backed healthcare overhaul.

The House voted 243-183 for the bill that would stop a 21% Medicare pay cut for doctors next year and put in place an updated payment formula that would better reward primary care physicians and reflect the sharp increase in healthcare costs.

Democratic backers said the pay boost was necessary to ensure that the elderly enrolled in the government’s Medicare healthcare program did not lose access to doctors.

Republican opponents called it a payoff to an influential doctors’ group to ensure its continued support for healthcare reform. They objected to the bill because Democratic leaders did not include any measures to pay for the $210 billion 10-year cost of the legislation.

"This is nothing more than a political payoff to the American Medical Association," Republican Representative Joe Barton said.

The 250,000-member AMA linked the payment formula update to its support for healthcare reform passed by the House on Nov. 7. The group argued that passing the Medicare bill would be a good show of faith by Congress that it was prepared to honor any new commitments made in the overhaul.

The White House backs the legislation, but the bill faces an uncertain fate in the Senate, which is about to begin debate on its version of a healthcare overhaul that is a top domestic priority for President Barack Obama.

The Senate failed to pass similar legislation in October amid growing concern over record budget deficits.

Senate Democratic leaders included in their broad healthcare reform bill a temporary measure that would stop next year’s Medicare pay cut for doctors, leaving until later any action on a long-term plan to improve Medicare payments.

Congress has voted for years for temporary "fixes" to the Medicare payment formula to prevent deep pay cuts. The House bill would put an end to that annual ritual and replace the current formula with a more generous plan.

"If we do nothing, payments to doctors treating Medicare patients will drop by 21% in the New Year with more cuts in the years to come," said House Democratic Leader Steny Hoyer. "If we allow that to take place, many seniors will find their doctor is no longer available."