AMA endorses House healthcare bill

House Democrats got some good news on health reform in the form of a key endorsement from an influential interest group: the American Medical Association (AMA).

The AMA endorsed the measure in a letter to Ways and Means Committee Chairman Charles Rangel (D-N.Y.) on Thursday. “On behalf of the Board of Trustees of the American Medical Association, I am writing to express our appreciation and support” for the House bill, wrote Michael Maves, the AMA’s executive vice president and CEO.

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“We urge members of the House Education and Labor, Energy and Commerce, and Ways and Means committees to favorably report H.R. 3200 for consideration by the full House," Maves wrote.

The endorsement of the nation’s largest physicians group could prove critical to the overall success of healthcare reform.

Not only do doctors exert influence over their patients, but a supportive AMA would put its muscle behind aiding Democrats’ efforts on healthcare reform instead of pushing against it.

The endorsement represents a bold declaration from the AMA that it has moved past its earlier concerns about the creation of a government-run health insurance plan, an element of reform seen as non-negotiable by liberals.

Just over a month ago, the AMA was sending signals to Capitol Hill that it opposed the creation of the so-called public option followed by a clarification that the group could support “variations of a public plan.”

House Democrats’ embrace of a plan that would not receive taxpayer funding and have to abide by the same insurance regulations as private plans seems to have addressed the AMA’s concerns.

The key to the AMA’s backing of the House bill is that the legislation would permanently fix the Medicare payment system for physicians, which annually calculates that their rates should be reduced. In 2010, the current formula would cut physician fees by 21 percent.

President Obama spoke at the AMA’s annual meeting last month and has tried to court the powerful group, which played a key role in stamping out previous attempts at comprehensive healthcare reform.

An endorsement of the House bill does not necessarily translate into the AMA’s full, unquestioning support for the Democratic healthcare reform campaign, however.

The AMA’s support for the House bill also sends an unmistakable signal to the Senate, which is not considering enacting permanent reforms to Medicare’s payment rate formula, about what it takes to win the group’s backing.