The Obama administration says a Montana Republican's long-shot effort to deny funding for the new federal health care law would prevent Medicare from paying the bills for millions of seniors _ displaying the GOP's difficulty trying to unwind a law that recrafted much of the nation's health care rules.
Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius says if Congress passes defunding legislation, Medicare would not be able to issue payments to popular private insurance plans that cover about one-fourth of all the seniors in the program. The health care law scaled back payments to Medicare Advantage plans, as the private insurance option is known.
Last month, House Republicans approved an amendment by Rep. Denny Rehberg, of Montana, to block the health care overhaul money as part of broader legislation to curb spending.
The Senate, led by Democrats, rejected a Republican budget bill Wednesday that included the effort to defund the federal health care overhaul as both sides wrangle over a compromise on funding to avoid a government shutdown. The GOP has little chance of killing the health care law in the ongoing negotiations because of support for the program from President Barack Obama and the Senate.
In a letter Tuesday to Sen. Max Baucus, D-Mont., Sebelius explained that since the health care law repealed the old payment rates for private plans, Medicare could be left with no legal authority to continue to issue payments. She said that would risk "significant disruptions in services" to about 12.8 million Medicare recipients.
The Department of Health and Human Services says many other services would be disrupted under the defunding amendment.
Rehberg's office counters that the nonpartisan Congressional Budget Office did not find that defunding would have that effect and it believes that HHS has legal authority to keep the program running if it wants to. Republicans say funding cuts to Medicare Advantage under the new law will force many seniors to leave the program anyway.
"If Secretary Sebelius is truly concerned about the seniors who benefit from Medicare Advantage, she should join Denny in his effort to repeal Obamacare," said Rehberg spokesman Jed Link. "Unfortunately for Montana's seniors, Secretary Sebelius, apparently working hand-in-hand with Sen. Baucus, has instead issued yet another full-throated defense of the law."
Sebelius' letter does not say how long affected Medicare Advantage enrollees would be without benefits until they could transition to traditional Medicare coverage.
Rehberg has campaigned hard against the federal health care law that Baucus was instrumental in negotiating. Rehberg recently announced he will be running for the U.S. Senate seat held by Democrat Jon Tester, setting up a heavyweight matchup that has both Republicans and Democrats looking forward for a chance to settle old scores.
Associated Press writer Ricardo Alonso-Zaldivar in Washington contributed to this report.