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Health law fix to save Children’s from added costs

By Matt Viser
Globe Staff / December 9, 2010

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WASHINGTON — The Senate voted last night to fix an error in the federal health care law that could cost Children’s Hospital Boston and others like it millions of dollars in added drug costs to treat children with rare diseases.

The change was included in a broader bill that would extend through next year a Medicare physician payment formula. The legislation ensures that Medicare and Tricare — the health program for military service members and retirees — would continue paying physicians at current levels instead of cutting reimbursements.

To fund the $19 billion in additional payments to doctors, lawmakers tightened the rules on tax credits in President Obama’s new health care law to prevent waste, according to the Associated Press. The White House backed the proposal.

The overall bill now goes to the House, which had already passed the fix that benefits children’s hospitals.

That change had been pursued by both Massachusetts senators. Senator Scott Brown, a Republican, had filed a stand-alone bill to fix the error, while Senator John Kerry, a Democrat, had helped persuade top members in his party to make the change through an amendment.

Both efforts initially failed, however, since it involved the landmark health care legislation — Republicans have been fighting to repeal the law rather than fix it, and Democrats have been loath to acknowledge its flaws.

The change involved correcting an unintentional drafting error that was made in the final, frenetic days of drafting the controversial health care legislation. Congressional staff intended to allow children’s hospitals continued access to the portion of a federal program that offers below-market prices on 347 specific medicines for rare, life-threatening conditions.

But that language was accidentally altered, cutting the children’s hospitals out of that part of the program.

Officials at Children’s Hospital Boston had said they would have been forced to find new ways to fund the drugs for poor children with rare diseases, such as neurological disorders and severe juvenile arthritis.

The Boston hospital, one of nearly 30 across the country with this problem, estimated that the mistake would have cost between $1.5 million and $3 million annually. Nationally, the problem would have cost children’s hospitals about $100 million annually.

Matt Viser can be reached at maviser@globe.com.