Obama’s ills not GOP

When President Obama warned physicians this week in a speech before the American Medical Association (AMA) that the U.S. could go the way of General Motors without healthcare reform, you could practically hear Republicans laughing. Obama’s description of how, without fixing healthcare, we will soon be “paying more, getting less and going broke” sounds precisely like the GOP’s description of the Democrats’ public healthcare plan.

Republicans may have little to offer on healthcare reform save opposition, but they have settled on a potent message to target a nervous public newly resistant to increased debt and deficits and growing scared of the government running anything. Indeed, the very bailouts, bankruptcies and government takeovers that have marked the young Obama administration have not only given weary Republicans a rallying cry but may have paved the way for the ultimate defeat of healthcare reform this summer.

The long-awaited and widely feared analysis from the Congressional Budget Office (CBO), which this week concluded Sen. Edward Kennedy’s (D-Mass.) healthcare plan would still leave 36 million Americans uninsured but drive the deficit up another $1.6 trillion, scattered Democrats and united Republicans. The White House responded by finding distance from Kennedy’s bill, with spokesman Robert Gibbs stating that “this is not the administration’s bill, and it’s not even the final Senate committee bill.” Of course, the president doesn’t have a bill, and doesn’t want to have one, since placing anything detailed on the table now would guarantee not only another brutal CBO score but the opportunity for Republicans to beat it to death.

With moderate and conservative Democrats reeling from the cost estimates and dug in against a public plan, Obama then announced in a television interview Tuesday that he could compromise on a public option.

Just how open a mind Obama has on healthcare is open to question. This week his administration teased the AMA with a trial balloon about the possibility of capping malpractice awards. Physicians awoke Monday to read in The New York Times that Obama has been making the case in private meetings that reducing malpractice lawsuit awards would drive down healthcare costs and should be part of healthcare reform. “ It is a position that could hurt Mr. Obama with the left wing of his party and with trial lawyers who are major donors to Democratic campaigns,” said the Times article. “But one Democrat close to the president said Mr. Obama, who wants health legislation to have broad support, views addressing medical liability issues as a ‘credibility-builder’ — in effect, a bargaining chip that might keep doctors and, more important, Republicans, at the negotiating table.”

Yet when members of the AMA gathered for the speech later that day in Chicago, President Obama told them not to get too excited, that he didn’t support capping malpractice suits. Instead, he told them not to fall for “fear-mongering” because the public option is their “friend.” In what might be a first since taking office, President Obama was booed.

As Democrats search for savings to fund a healthcare overhaul, it isn’t Republican fear-mongering that stands in the way. Their own members have objected to capping malpractice lawsuits, cutting Medicare payments to hospitals that treat the uninsured, taxing employer-provided healthcare benefits, enacting a public plan, enacting a public plan with a trigger, compromising on insurance cooperatives and limiting tax deductions for the wealthy. And the CBO has told them that preventive care and expanded use of electronic medical records won’t produce enough savings to cover reform. In other words, trying to pass an expensive new program without finding real savings just leaves us “paying more, getting less and going broke.”

Stoddard is an associate editor of The Hill.