The News Courier in Athens, Alabama

State and Nation

December 29, 2012

Budget struggle raising anxiety for health care

— WASHINGTON (AP) — Confused about the federal budget struggle? So are doctors, hospital administrators and other medical professionals who serve the 100 million Americans covered by Medicare and Medicaid.

Rarely has the government sent so many conflicting signals in so short a time about the bottom line for the health care industry.

Cuts are coming, says Washington, and some could be really big. Yet more government spending is also being promised as President Barack Obama's health care overhaul advances and millions of uninsured people move closer to getting government-subsidized coverage.

"Imagine a person being told they are going to get a raise, but their taxes are also going to go up and they are going to be paying more for gas," said Thornton Kirby, president of the South Carolina Hospital Association. "They don't know if they are going to be taking home more or less. That's the uncertainty when there are so many variables in play."

Real money is at stake for big hospitals and small medical practices alike. Government at all levels pays nearly half the nation's health care tab, with federal funds accounting for most of that.

It's widely assumed that a budget deal will mean cuts for Medicare service providers. But which ones? How much? And will Medicaid and subsidies to help people get coverage under the health care law also be cut?

As House Speaker John Boehner famously said: "God only knows." The Ohio Republican was referring to the overall chances of getting a budget deal, but the same can be said of how health care — one-sixth of the economy — will fare.

"There is no political consensus to do anything significant," said Dan Mendelson, president of Avalere Health, a market analysis firm. "There is a collective walking away from things that matter. All the stuff on the lists of options becomes impossible, because there is no give-and-take."

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