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Congress votes to delay pay cut to doctors

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - Legislation to postpone for one month a hefty cut in payments to doctors who participate in the U.S. Medicare health insurance program for the elderly and disabled won final U.S. congressional passage on Monday.

On a voice vote, the House of Representatives approved the measure, earlier passed by the Senate, clearing the way for President Barack Obama to sign it into law before a 23 percent pay cut is set to go into effect on Wednesday.

The bipartisan measure was crafted by Senate Finance Committee Chairman Max Baucus, a Democrat, and Senator Charles Grassley, the panel's top Republican.

Baucus and Grassley have vowed to try to draft a longer-term solution before the end of the year. Under the bill passed by the House and Senate, doctors are to be paid at current rates through December 31.

For years, Congress has avoided a permanent fix because it would add billions of dollars to U.S. budget deficits.

But lawmakers do not want doctors turning away elderly patients, so they have been enacting a series of temporary "fixes" to the payment system to prevent steep pay cuts.

Americans age 65 and older and disabled people are eligible for health coverage provided by the Medicare program.

Cecil Wilson, president of the American Medical Association, hailed Monday's House vote, but renewed his push for a long-term solution by year's end.

"Today, Congress staved off a Medicare meltdown for seniors, but this short-term reprieve ends when a 25 percent Medicare cut to physicians" is set to begin on January 1, Wilson said.

"It is crucial that Congress act well before the January 1 deadline," Wilson said.

(Reporting by Thomas Ferraro; editing by Will Dunham)