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Groups blast Senate gridlock on Medicare, jobless funds

WASHINGTON - Political gridlock in the Senate triggered a legal requirement Monday for a 21 percent cut in Medicare fees to doctors, who warned they may have to limit care for seniors unless cuts are reversed.

Hoping the Senate will act soon to stave off the cuts, the Obama administration directed Medicare billing contractors to hold off processing claims for 10 business days. Medicare normally takes 14 days to pay doctors, so there would be no reduction in reimbursement if lawmakers move quickly. But the American Medical Association assailed lawmakers for allowing the cuts. The Senate should "stop playing games with Medicare patients and the physicians who care for them," said AMA president Dr. James Rohack.

Funding to temporarily stave off the cuts was part of a bill passed last week by the House. But the Senate failed to act on the one-month fix after Sen. Jim Bunning (R-Ky.) objected, saying the $10-billion measure would add to the deficit.

The impasse over the bill, which also would extend funds for unemployment insurance, highway construction and other programs, also created uncertainty among officials and interest groups in New York.

Monday about 8,000 people lost their unemployment benefits at least temporarily, the state Department of Labor said. That number could grow over time, said Brian Fallon, a spokesman for Sen. Charles Schumer (D-N.Y.). Others who have lost their jobs lost the ability to apply for health insurance under the federal COBRA program. Schumer called it "unfair and almost inhumane to cut these fine people off from their benefits. Senator Bunning should relent."

New York had no specific highway projects blocked by the failure to extend highway trust fund money, the federal Department of Transportation said. And of the 2,000 federal Transportation workers that will be furloughed Tuesday with a vote to restore the funds, fewer than 90 are in New York.

Still, Timothy LaCoss at the New York division of the Federal Highway Administration in Albany Monday told road construction companies in an e-mail that his office had ceased work on regular federally funded projects, and was working only on projects funded by stimulus dollars.

Marc Herbst of the Long Island Contractors' Association said 11,100 construction workers, about 30 percent of the total, already were out of work on Long Island, and that a freeze on federal highway funds only would aggravate the situation.

"This just adds to the uncertainty for future employment," Herbst said. "The biggest concern is how long the delay will be." With Tom Brune

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