By KEVIN FREKING, Associated Press | July 16, 2008

WASHINGTON — Congress yesterday rejected President Bush’s veto of legislation protecting doctors from a 10.6% cut in their reimbursement rates when treating Medicare patients.

The override vote in the House was a lopsided 383-41, easily meeting the two-thirds threshold needed to nullify the president’s veto. About an hour later, the Senate voted to override, 70-26.

Bush has vetoed bills nine times, and Congress has had the muscle to override him only on a water projects bill and twice on farm legislation.

The president said he supported rescinding the pay cut, but he objected to the way lawmakers would finance the plan, which would be largely by reducing spending on private health plans serving the elderly and disabled.

"I support the primary objective of this legislation, to forestall reductions in physician payments," Bush said in a statement. "Yet taking choices away from seniors to pay physicians is wrong."

Lawmakers were under pressure from doctors and the elderly patients they serve to void the rate cut, which kicked in on July 1. The cut is based on a formula that establishes lower reimbursement rates when Medicare spending levels exceed established targets. About 600,000 doctors treat Medicare patients.

Instead of a cut, the legislation would freeze Medicare rates for doctors in 2008 and would increase them by 1.1% in 2009. The legislation generates the revenue necessary to pay doctors more by reducing spending on private health insurance plans. Those plans serve more than 9 million people through the Medicare Advantage program.

Insurers and the Bush administration argued that the changes Democrats sought would lead to benefit cuts and to fewer Medicare Advantage plans. The Congressional Budget Office estimated that over the course of 5 years, enrollment in Medicare Advantage would grow to 12 million rather than to 14.3 million.

Bush said the bill would reduce "access, benefits, and choices for all beneficiaries."

"We don’t have to punish the patients to help the doctors," Rep Mike Rogers, a Republican of Michigan, said.

While the focus on the bill has largely been on changes for doctors and private insurers, virtually every type of health care provider as well as millions of patients have a stake in the legislation.