AMA conditionally backs House health bill

The American Medical Association (AMA) tendered its support for the House’s healthcare reform bill Thursday but stopped short of endorsing the legislation.

“The AMA has decided to support the principles” of the House’s healthcare reform bill passed in conjunction with separate, $210 billion legislation to reform the way Medicare pays doctors, AMA President J. James Rohack said during a conference call with reporters.

Support is not the same as an endorsement, Rohack said. “This legislation is not perfect, but this debate isn’t over and the work isn’t done." Rohack declined to answer questions about whether the AMA would withdraw its support if Congress fails to enact reforms to physicians’ Medicare payments.

The AMA’s aim is to “keep the process moving” with the House scheduled to vote on healthcare reform Saturday, Rohack said. “We’re committed to continuing to work with the House to improve the legislation.”

In a letter sent to House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) on Thursday, AMA Executive Vice President and CEO Michael Maves wrote, "I want to express our support for concurrent passage” of the healthcare reform and Medicare payment bills. “A successful foundation for health system reform is dependent on House passage of both bills.”

Despite lacking a formal endorsement from the AMA, support of any kind from the influential physician-lobbying group is a boon to Democrats — especially since the AMA had been a stalwart opponent of past attempts to reform the healthcare system, from the Truman to the Clinton administrations.

AMA members will be asked to contact their lawmakers to express support for the bill in the coming days, Rohack said, but the organization does not plan to mount an advertising or other promotional campaign.

The AMA’s action came the same day that the powerful senior citizens’ group AARP endorsed the House bill. The American Cancer Society Cancer Action Network also endorsed the legislation this week.

The AMA’s tentative embrace of the healthcare reform bill underscores the divide within the physician community over the issue. State medical societies in Ohio, Georgia and other locations and specialty societies such as the American College of Surgeons have come out in opposition to the bills pending in the House and Senate.

The leaders of the AMA, which is composed of societies like those as well as individual physicians, can expect to hear an earful from dissidents during a conference set to begin Saturday in Houston. During the conference call, which was intended for the media, a member of the Texas Medical Association and a member of the American Academy of Facial Plastic and Reconstructive Surgery spoke up to question the AMA’s support for the bill.

Other physician groups, such as the American Academy of Family Physicians and the American Osteopathic Association, have endorsed the House bill.

The AMA endorsed the original version of the House healthcare reform bill this summer, which included the so-called doctors-fix provisions. Concerns that addressing that problem would add hundreds of billions of dollars to the budget deficit, however, contributed to a failed Senate vote last month to pass a standalone Medicare payments bill and the House’s decision to separate the two measures.