Obama wants to 'explore' malpractice reform

CHICAGO — As part of the public kickoff of his healthcare reform plan, President Obama offered the American Medical Association (AMA) an olive branch as he criticized it for its skepticism about a public insurance option.

Obama told the AMA that he is open to exploring some ways to reform malpractice suits, but said he does not favor capping awards.

Malpractice suits have long been a point of contention between Democrats and the AMA. The AMA wants to see the number of malpractice suits reduced — an idea that displeases trial lawyers. And trial lawyers are some of the biggest donors to the Democratic Party. But Obama has indicated he is open to discussing the issue in order to see health reform passed.

The president, describing his prescription for healthcare reform, told the group that he recognizes that it will be difficult for doctors to adhere to some of the things he wants to do if they "feel like they are constantly looking over their shoulder for fear of lawsuits."

"Some doctors may feel the need to order more tests and treatments to avoid being legally vulnerable," Obama said. "That’s a real issue. And while I’m not advocating caps on malpractice awards, which I believe can be unfair to people who’ve been wrongfully harmed, I do think we need to explore a range of ideas about how to put patient safety first, let doctors focus on practicing medicine and encourage broader use of evidence-based guidelines."

The president also addressed an issue that has the AMA concerned — a public insurance option for healthcare.

"Now, I know there’s some concern about a public option," Obama said. "In particular, I understand that 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. These are legitimate concerns, but ones, I believe, that can be overcome."

The AMA has expressed skepticism about the public plan, initially hinting it was against the idea, before clarify itself to say it was opposed to a Medicare-type single insurer but could be open to other options.

Obama, in his address to the nation’s largest physicians organization, declared that "what are not legitimate concerns are those being put forward claiming a public option is somehow a Trojan horse for a single-payer system."

"I’ll be honest. There are countries where a single-payer system may be working. But I believe — and I’ve even taken some flak from members of my own party for this belief — that it is important for us to build on our traditions here in the United States," Obama said. "So when you hear the naysayers claim that I’m trying to bring about government-run healthcare, know this — they are not telling the truth."

Obama noted that the $1 trillion price tag over 10 years "sounds like a lot of money — and it is — but remember: It is less than we are projected to spend on the war in Iraq."

The president said he and supporters of reform have momentum over the "opposition that has used fear tactics to paint any effort to achieve reform as an attempt to socialize medicine," but he still assailed the tactics of his critics.

"They’ll give dire warnings about socialized medicine and government takeovers; long lines and rationed care; decisions made by bureaucrats and not doctors. We’ve heard it all before — and because these fear tactics have worked, things have kept getting worse," Obama said.

But the president said the status quo is "unsustainable" for patients, the economy and doctors.

"Make no mistake: the cost of our health care is a threat to our economy," Obama said. "It is an escalating burden on our families and businesses. It is a ticking time-bomb for the federal budget.  And it is unsustainable for the United States of America."