Obama Seeks Doctors’ Support But Opposes Caps on Malpractice Awards

June 17, 2009

President Barack Obama warned doctors Monday the U.S. healthcare system was a ticking time bomb and urged them to support his overhaul, which includes a public insurance plan that many of them view with skepticism.

Obama took his healthcare campaign to the annual meeting of the influential American Medical Association, which represents 250,000 doctors and has historically been opposed to a bigger government role in healthcare.

“If we do not fix our healthcare system, America may go the way of GM; paying more, getting less, and going broke,” Obama said, likening the healthcare system to struggling carmaker General Motors, which has filed for bankruptcy protection.

“It is a ticking time bomb for the federal budget. And it is unsustainable for the United States of America,” said Obama, who wants a reform bill on his desk by October.

The U.S. healthcare industry costs about $2.5 trillion annually but leaves 46 million Americans uninsured and with little access to medical care.

Debate has sharpened over elements of the overhaul being drafted by Congress, including how to pay for the plan and whether it should include a public program to compete with private insurers.

In Washington, Senate Finance Committee Chairman Max Baucus said his panel would propose healthcare reform legislation this week and there was a good chance the measure would pass the full Senate with bipartisan support.

“I’ll get you 85 to 90 percent (chance) — bipartisan — because enough Republican senators want to do the right thing and have spent a lot of time working on it,” Baucus, a Democrat, told Reuters in an interview.

The powerful Senate Finance Committee is one of five congressional panels drafting legislation to overhaul the system.

Health-related stocks slipped more than the 2.13 percent drop in the Dow Jones Industrial Average on Monday. The Morgan Stanley Healthcare Payor index fell 2.95 percent and the Amex Pharmaceutical index fell 2.85 percent.

The chief executive of Aetna Inc, the No. 3 health insurer, told Reuters that Obama’s remarks were a “step in the right direction.” CEO Ronald Williams also said Aetna would focus on promoting public-private partnerships.

Many Republicans reject a public plan and argue that it would ultimately drive private insurers out of business.

The AMA also has expressed doubts about any public plan similar to the government’s Medicare program for the elderly. Doctors have struggled for years over cuts in Medicare fees.

“I understand you are concerned that today’s Medicare rates will be applied broadly in a way that means our cost savings are coming off your backs,” Obama said. “These are legitimate concerns, but ones, I believe, that can be overcome.”

The AMA said after the speech it was premature to judge the administration without details of what it plans.

“What you heard today was a call for a thoughtful analysis of all the options,” AMA President Dr Nancy Nielsen said.


Obama received a standing ovation when he raised the issue of doctors being afraid to practice because of lawsuits, but there were a few boos when he said he did not support caps on malpractice awards.

Instead, Obama called for exploring a range of ideas to scale back “excessive defensive medicine.”

Doctors have long complained they must pay high malpractice insurance premiums because of the lack of limits on suits, and those costs are often passed to patients as higher fees.

Obama said a public healthcare plan would “inject competition into the healthcare market that forces waste out of the system and keeps the insurance companies honest.”

He acknowledged that expanding coverage to all Americans would have a short-term cost but stressed it would not add to the deficit in the next decade. But with some estimates putting the cost at $1.2 trillion, critics say the reforms will only add to the country’s growing mountain of debt.

The Congressional Budget Office said in a preliminary estimate that a healthcare plan proposed by Democratic Senator Edward Kennedy — closely mirroring Obama’s wishlist — would add $1 trillion to the deficit over 10 years and still leave millions uninsured.

“There are already voices saying the numbers don’t add up. They are wrong,” Obama said, outlining plans to pay for the reforms, including tax increases on wealthier Americans and spending cuts.

A Senate Republican leader, Jon Kyl, predicted momentum for reform would slow as the public learns more about Democrats’ plans.

“He knows momentum will inevitably slow for something that is extraordinarily costly, will deny people coverage that they already have, will ration their healthcare and could provide some kind of government insurance company that is going to drive out private insurance companies,” Kyl said.

(Writing by David Alexander and Ross Colvin, additional reporting by Andrew Stern in Chicago, editing by Eric Beech)

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