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By Susan Cornwell and Thomas Ferraro
WASHINGTON, March 26 (Reuters) - Republican House Speaker John Boehner said on Wednesday he expected Congress to act swiftly on legislation to avert looming Medicare pay cuts for doctors after he and Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, a Democrat, agreed to the proposal.
The House of Representatives will vote on Thursday on the legislation delaying the cuts for another year, Boehner said, adding he expected the Senate would follow "pretty quickly."
Boehner said the short-term, 12-month "doc fix" does not preclude any work from being done on a longer-term solution to the recurring problem.
Hundreds of thousands of doctors who participate in traditional Medicare face a 24 percent pay cut on April 1, a situation dating to a 1990s initiative to restrain federal spending on the government healthcare program, which today serves nearly 50 million elderly and disabled people.
Doctors hoped to see a permanent fix to the Medicare payments problem this year after Republicans and Democrats in both chambers of Congress agreed in February on a policy to replace the payment formula, known as the sustainable growth rate or SGR.
But there was no agreement on how to fund the $138 billion cost of the "doc fix" over the next decade, a serious sticking point in the Republican-run House.
"The long term fix - those conversations have been difficult, because there's a price tag ... And that issue has to be addressed," Boehner told a news conference.
"This (short-term fix) does not preclude any work from being done on the long term fix in terms of how we pay doctors. I frankly think the permanent fix that's being talked about is a good fix," Boehner said.
"What there isn't agreement on, is how are we going to pay for it."
Many lawmakers in both parties support the idea of finding a permanent repair to the Medicare doctors payment system, fearing that otherwise doctors who suffer pay cuts will be forced to turn away patients seeking access to care under the government-funded health care program for the elderly.
The new proposal to avoid the pay cut through next March was introduced in the House late on Tuesday.
Earlier this month, the House passed a previous version of the "doc fix" that would have been a permanent repair, but would have paid for it by delaying for five years the tax penalty most Americans must pay if they decline to sign up for President Barack Obama's landmark healthcare program.
Most House Democrats refused to endorse that approach, which appeared to have no chance of winning Senate passage, and the White House threatened to veto if it did. (Reporting By Susan Cornwell and Thomas Ferraro; Editing by Caren Bohan and Sophie Hares)