Obama pledges to improve health law, but Dems offer few details

President Obama and Democrats are offering few specifics when it comes to changing the nation’s healthcare law.

Democrats are trying to recast themselves as a party that’s listening to voters after their midterm shellacking, one that is willing to alter Obama’s signature domestic achievement in order to improve it.

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Obama, in his State of the Union address, expressed a willingness to tackle medical malpractice reform, and also repeated his call to eliminate a tax-reporting provision deeply unpopular with business.

“Let me be the first to say that anything can be improved,” Obama said Tuesday. “If you have ideas about how to improve this law by making care better or more affordable, I am eager to work with you.”

Hundreds of healthcare advocates will hear more from the president when he addresses Families USA’s annual meeting on Friday morning.

Beyond addressing the 1099 tax filing requirement, however, Obama and other Democrats have been vague in saying what changes they could actually accept.

The administration's top health official, Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius, has so far not proposed any new ideas for compromise.

“We're happy to talk about other areas that certainly can be improved as we move along,” she told The Hill before the president’s address.

And pressed by Ways and Means Republicans on Wednesday to identify changes to the law that the White House would support beyond the “1099” tax provision and tort reform, economic adviser Austan Goolsbee was equally reticent.

“I would say that the president’s open to working with you if you identify other items,” he said.

Republicans, predictably, say they’re unimpressed.

“It’s only after this disastrous bill has become law that the president say he’s now interested in making it better, even as he belittles the legitimate concerns so many Americans continue to have about it,” said Senate GOP Leader Mitch McConnell (Ky.).

Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) grilled Sebelius on medical malpractice during a Senate Health panel hearing Thursday and requested that she submit for the record the parameters of what the White House is open to considering.

“We're going to find out if the trial lawyers run this place,” McCain said, “or the American people.”

Even on 1099, the administration has declined to offer a way forward on the provision's most controversial aspect: its $19 billion price tag.

A few Democrats have offered specific proposals to change the healthcare law, though these changes mostly tinker around the edges.

Rep. Robert Andrews (N.J.), the top Democrat on the Education and Labor Health subcommittee, listed several potential improvements in addition to the tax reporting requirement: fixing the small-business tax credits so they can be used to cover owners' children if they’re employees; clearer definitions of who qualifies as a full-time employee for purposes of the employer mandate; and creating incentives for states to band together and create regional health exchanges starting in 2014.

“I have talked to some Republicans about these things,” Andrews told The Hill, “and I think when the temperature drops, it's quite possible we can do these things.”

Some Republicans have used Obama’s stated willingness to change the law to push GOP replacement ideas, such as eliminating a new Medicare advisory board outside Congress's power.

“We'd love to repeal [the law], but we also want to tweak it in the meantime,” Rep. John Fleming (R-La.) said Wednesday. “One great step in doing that is removing these awful bureaucrats who are going to be overly paid in order to determine what goods and services people are going to get in the healthcare system.”

Health activists listening to Obama on Friday are likely to hear something closer to a victory celebration than a call for compromise, judging from the tone of Democratic lawmakers who spoke at the convention on Thursday.

“The message to our fellow Americans must be loud and clear,” Sen. Tom Harkin (D-Iowa) told the advocates on Thursday. “This new law has important new benefits and protections. Don’t let the Republicans take them away!”