WASHINGTON — Nearly 650,000 doctors caring for millions of seniors will get a steep cut in Medicare payments Jan. 18 unless a gridlocked Congress issues a reprieve, program officials said yesterday.
A provision waiving a scheduled 27.4 percent cut in physician reimbursement was included in the payroll tax legislation now ensnared in partisan political wrangling between the House and Senate.
Medicare deputy administrator Jonathan Blum said the cut will go through unless Congress acts. The backlog from more than a couple of weeks of waiting for lawmakers could cause the program’s computers to crash, he said.
Tax legislation passed by the Senate last week included a two-month Medicare reprieve, but House Republicans rejected that yesterday.
The “vote seriously destabilizes Medicare, and causes anxiety for physicians and seniors who depend on it,’’ said Lynda Young, Massachusetts Medical Society president, in a statement yesterday.
The recurring threat of the pay cut to doctors is perhaps the most visible symbol of Medicare’s financial problems. Reductions are required by a 1990s budget law that failed to control spending but never got repealed. Instead, Congress passes a temporary fix each year, only to increase the size of cuts required next time around.
Medicare sent an alert to doctors on Monday telling them it will hold claims for the first 10 business days of 2012 unless Congress acts to waive the cuts.
Blum said holding claims any longer than that could cause problems for Medicare’s computers, designed to expedite payment.
Blum said Medicare has told the contractors handling its billing to start paying claims for 2012 at the lower rate on Jan. 18.
One factor that worries officials is that claims volume is often high in winter months.
Such steep cuts could undermine care for millions of elderly and disabled Medicare beneficiaries, as well as military retirees. Payment rates in the Pentagon’s program are pegged to Medicare.
Some doctors have said they will stop taking new Medicare patients.