U.S. Senate Favors Secure Rural Schools – Secure Docs, Too

The U.S. Senate last night  passed a bill to continue Secure Rural Schools. That’s a federal revenue-sharing program that delivers some $14 million to local governments in Alaska, primarily in Southeast, to compensate for low federal timber receipts. The bill also helps Medicare providers nationwide.

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Sen. Lisa Murkowski is pleased with the extension.

“Yeah! Two more years,” she said today.

It was part of a Medicare reimbursement bill known as the “doc fix.” It now goes to President Obama for his signature.

Secure Rural Schools wasn’t meant to be a permanent subsidy, but Murkowski says some communities surrounded by the Tongass National Forest rely on the program for a significant chunk of their budgets and should be pushed off a cliff.

“If we had not been able to provide for that funding, it would have been a cliff. These communities would be left high and dry,” she said.

Secure Rural Schools pays for local roads and emergency services, in addition to schools.

The “doc fix” portion of the bill ends the threat of a 21 percent rate reduction for Medicare providers, which stems from a cost-cutting law passed 17 years ago. Congress has been passing temporary fixes to block its effects year after year. Murkowski says the permanent doc fix will help older Alaskans and remove uncertainty for their doctors.

But the doc fix has a price tag. Congressional budget analysts say the bill will cost $141 billion over the first decade, but may save money after that. Conservative groups like Club for Growth and Heritage Action wanted senators to vote no. Sen. Dan Sullivan, like Murkowski, voted for the bill anyway. Sullivan points out that he voted to apply “pay as you go” rules, which would have required the bill to be paid for, with unspecified cuts elsewhere or revenue increases.

“But at the end of the day, even though those didn’t pass, I thought that the overall package was important for the state, important for the country,” Sullivan said, speaking of both the Medicare rate and Secure Rural Schools.

Anchorage physician Oliver Korshin says the bill was certainly important to him. Korshin sees a lot of Medicare patients, in part because of his specialty, opthomology, and also because he’s been practicing in the same place for 30 years and his patients have grown old with him.

“A 21 percent cut for my services to Medicare patients would be a devastating thing for me to swallow, or any practitioner that sees a lot of Medicare patients,” he said. “My rent hasn’t dropped by 21 percent,” nor have other office expenses.

If the doc fix hadn’t passed, Korshin says he would have had to stop taking new Medicare patients. Now, though, his door is open.