On LI, rooting for panel to fail

As part of the 14th annual Extend the As part of the 14th annual Extend the Holidays toy drive, organized by state Sen. Charles Fuschillo Jr. (R-Merrick), more than 2,000 toys were collected to be given to young patients at Winthrop-University Hospital's pediatric center. (undated file photo) Photo Credit: Newsday/Karen Wiles Stabile

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WASHINGTON -- With time running out and an impatient nation watching, the congressional supercommittee is facing enormous pressure to agree on cutting at least $1.2 trillion from the deficit by its deadline on Wednesday.

But on Long Island, and in many other places across the country, hospital executives, liberal lawmakers and advocates for seniors are rooting for the supercommittee to fail. And they may get their wish.

Amid growing concern that partisanship will prevent a deal, Democrats and Republicans Sunday blamed each other.

If the supercommittee can't reach a deal, automatic spending cuts would kick in.

Known as the sequester -- the cuts would trim Medicare by much less than proposals floated by Democrats and far less than Republicans' plan to turn Medicare into vouchers.

"We're thinking the supercommittee can do a multitude of damage to the health care system in New York and Long Island that far exceeds what the sequester would be," said Ken Raske, president of the Greater New York Hospital Association, a trade group.

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"Given what we've seen so far in the supercommittee, right now we think the beneficiaries are better off with the sequester," said Joe Baker, president of the Medicare Rights Center in Manhattan.

The issue is crucial to Long Island. Health care is the second-largest employer, after education, in Nassau and Suffolk counties and is the only growing industry as job creation has stagnated, said Long Island Association chief economist Pearl Kamer. Medicare paid $2.7 billion for more than 400,000 patients this year, the Nassau-Suffolk Hospital Council said.

Medicare, the $523 billion federal health insurance program for seniors, defense spending ($689 billion last year) and federal taxes ($2 trillion last year) are at the core of the supercommittee's struggles as it seeks to break the partisan gridlock that led to its creation.

In a deal to end last summer's debt-limit showdown, Congress set up the special panel and required it to propose at least $1.2 trillion in deficit reductions over 10 years by Wednesday. If it doesn't, cuts in defense and domestic spending of $600 billion each would automatically kick in beginning in 2013.

In negotiating the automatic cuts, Democrats succeeded in barring reductions to Medicaid and limiting them to 2 percent of Medicare spending. Republicans protected the Pentagon by expanding defense cuts to include State Department and Homeland Security spending.

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Raske noted the irony: Democrats in July worked hard to protect Medicare and Medicaid in crafting the cuts triggered if the committee fails. But Democrats on the panel are now offering big reductions to the programs.

Democrats have talked of raising $800 billion to $1 trillion in taxes and securing savings of $175 billion to $250 billion from Medicare, plus $50 billion from Medicaid, graduate medical education and other programs.

Both sides are considering ideas that Raske said made the automatic cuts look more acceptable. "With 2 percent cuts to Medicare across the board, at least we would know where we would stand," said Kevin Dahill, president of the Nassau-Suffolk Hospital Council. "Some of the proposals are absolutely frightening."

Baker said Democrats have proposed $100 billion in cuts to beneficiaries that could result in higher premiums or co-pays.

"There are no beneficiary cuts in the sequester," he said.

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In the past, Congress has tried to slow the growth of Medicare spending. But Raske said he worries about the effects of current proposed cuts.

Long Beach Medical Center specializes in geriatric care and about 80 percent of its patients are on Medicare or Medicaid.

Douglas Melzer, the hospital's chief executive officer, said proposed cuts put services that don't pay for themselves, such as diabetes control, on the chopping block and reduces funding for teaching hospitals.

"We have a full range of services and each of those services would be impacted by cuts," he said.

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