The House on Thursday began to ease the pain on senior citizens who are set to, in effect, see their Social Security payments go down next year.
By a 406-18 majority, the House voted to eliminate next year's premium increases on Medicare Part B, the part of the health plan for the aging that covers doctor visits.
Since senior citizens often have their Part B premiums deducted from their Social Security checks -- which won't include a cost-of-living increase next year -- about a quarter of the nation's seniors actually would see their pay go down unless there is some congressional action.
That would be unacceptable, lawmakers from both parties agreed.
"I feel very strongly that trying to force some Americans to pay an additional 20 percent a month for premiums would have been an unfair burden and stress," said Rep. Louise M. Slaughter, D-Fairport.
Rep. Chris Lee, R-Clarence, agreed, saying the House "did the right thing to shield low-income seniors from Medicare premium hikes, especially in light of the tough economic times and the lack of an expected Social Security cost-of-living increase this year."
Current law already dictates that because there hasn't been enough inflation to trigger a Social Security cost-of-living adjustment, most seniors would not have to pay higher Medicare Part B premiums.
But seniors who are on both Medicare and Medicaid, the government health care plan for the poor, don't qualify for that exemption. Those poorer seniors comprise the vast majority of the 11 million who now need Congress to act to prevent their premiums from increasing.
Other groups currently subject to the Medicare cost increase are the highest-income Social Security recipients and seniors who recently enrolled in the program.
But those seniors would be protected, too, under the House legislation.
"We must ensure that next year, seniors living on fixed incomes are not forced to pay more for the Medicare they depend on," said Rep. Brian Higgins, D-Buffalo. "Western New York seniors are already stretched painfully thin."
Republicans joined Democrats in voting for the bill, even though they didn't like the process with which it was drawn up.
Stirred by an outcry from seniors who won't receive a Social Security pay raise this year, House Democratic leaders introduced the Medicare premium adjustment bill Wednesday and forced it to a vote a day later without a hearing to study it.
"We're very upset that they would do this so cavalierly, on such short notice," said Rep. Joe Barton, R-Texas.
Barton voted for the bill nevertheless, saying: "We need to do something."
The bill is expected to pass the Senate shortly, and it may not be the only congressional effort to help senior citizens.
Several proposals have been introduced in the House to give Social Security recipients some compensation to make up for the lack of a cost-of-living adjustment.
A proposal by Rep. Carolyn McCarthy, D-Garden City, and backed by Higgins appears to have the most momentum. That bill would give seniors a one-time $150 payment in lieu of a monthly raise.