AMA endorses Senate healthcare reform bill

The American Medical Association endorsed the Senate's healthcare reform legislation Monday, giving Democrats the blessing of the nation's largest physician society as the bill approaches the finish line.

The endorsement stands as a significant coup for President Barack ObamaBarack Hussein ObamaThe Trump economy is destroying the Obama coalition Charlottesville and the failure of moral leadership Entering the dawn of commercial human spaceflight MORE and congressional Democratic leaders, who have aggressively sought the AMA’s backing. The organization had opposed comprehensive healthcare reform bills dating back to the Truman administration.

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In addition to whatever resources the AMA can bring to help speed healthcare reform legislation toward final passage, the endorsement also offers Democrats with the symbolic support of physicians, who could help popularize the effort and would be key to a smooth implementation of the legislation in the coming years.

The AMA also announced its support of the House version of the bill that cleared the lower chamber last month. The Senate is on track to vote on its bill on Christmas Eve.

While the AMA does not represent all American physicians — and a number of state-based and surgical specialty groups have opposed the Senate bill — its influence in Washington is unparalleled among medical societies. Paired with the endorsement of the powerful senior citizens group AARP, the AMA's support also could help Democrats win over skeptical older voters.

In a statement, the AMA's president-elect says the Senate legislation achieves many of the organization's goals for healthcare reform, including: extending coverage to the uninsured, prohibiting insurance companies from denying coverage based on pre-existing conditions or establishing annual or lifetime caps on benefits, and promoting preventive healthcare and wellness services.

“All Americans deserve affordable, high-quality health coverage so they can get the medical care they need — and this bill advances many of our priority issues for achieving the vision of a health system that works for patients and physicians,” said Cecil Wilson.

The AMA made its endorsement even though the Senate bill would not solve one of the biggest problems vexing physicians: a flawed Medicare payment system that threatens to slash their fees each year.

In 2010, payments would be cut by 21.5 percent for Medicare and for the military health benefits program, which bases its fees on Medicare. The defense bill Obama signed Sunday would postpone the cuts for two months but Congress must act to make a costly, permanent fix to the problem.

The original Senate healthcare reform bill included a one-year patch but physician groups urged it be stricken to force Congress to work on a long-term solution next year, Senate Majority Leader Harry ReidHarry Mason ReidBattle of the billionaires drives Nevada contest Senate Democrats should stop playing politics on Kavanaugh Celebrities dive into midterms, hoping to thwart Trump MORE (D-Nev.) said Saturday.

"Separate action is needed early next year to permanently repeal the current Medicare physician payment formula to provide a stable payment system to preserve access to care for America’s seniors, baby boomers and military families," Wilson said.

The House-passed bill includes the one-year "doc fix" provisions. Earlier this year, the Senate failed to pass a standalone bill with a permanent reform of the physician payment formula, largely based on objections that Reid did not identify budgetary offsets to pay for the nearly $250 billion the bill would have cost.

Despite the endorsement, the AMA remains opposed to a number of provisions in the Senate bill, such as a proposal to create an independent Medicare commission that would establish annual payment updates for physicians and other healthcare providers that Congress would have to vote down to prevent from taking effect.

The House-passed healthcare bill does not include the commission but it is strongly backed by the White House as a vital cost-containment mechanism and is credited by the Congressional Budget Office as one of the major reasons the Senate bill could reduce federal budget deficits over the long term.

Other healthcare industry groups, such as the American Hospital Association and the Federation of American Hospitals, have also endorsed the Senate bill.