WASHINGTON — President Barack Obama took his case for a massive overhaul of health care to one of his most skeptical audiences — doctors — and was met with scattered boos when he told them bluntly that he wants to continue allowing patients to sue for and win unlimited amounts in malpractice cases.
Doctors say it drives up their malpractice insurance premiums to exorbitant levels and thus drives up the costs of health care. They want the government to limit the amount of money that juries can order doctors and insurance companies to pay.
Obama acknowledged the complaint, noting that doctors "feel like they're constantly looking over their shoulders for fear of lawsuits" and that some order more expensive tests and treatments "to avoid being legally vulnerable."
However, he also told the American Medical Association's annual meeting in Chicago that he didn't support limiting malpractice awards.
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"I want to be honest with you. I'm not advocating caps on malpractice awards, which . . . I personally believe can be unfair to people who've been wrongfully harmed," he said.
Lawyers are traditionally strong backers of the Democratic Party. They gave 76 percent of their contributions to Democrats in the last campaign cycle, according to opensecrets.org, making them the second most pro-Democratic sector after organized labor.
Obama got applause for his broad pitch to contain costs, allow patients to keep seeing their doctors in any new plan, and expand coverage for the nation's 46 million uninsured.
He said he did want to work with doctors to "scale back the excessive defensive medicine that reinforces our current system and shift to a system where we are providing better care simply, rather than simply more treatment."
One way he suggested was changing the way doctors, hospitals and care providers are paid. He urged "bundling" payments for treatment of a disease, rather than single payments for every treatment. He also recommended incentives to get doctors to work together. And he suggested finding ways to lower the costs of medical school and to reward doctors who go into primary care rather than "more lucrative oaths."
Speaking broadly, Obama said the soaring costs of health care are a "ticking time bomb" threatening the country's economy.
Noting that health care costs helped cripple American automakers, he said that, "if we do not fix our health care system, America may go the way of GM — paying more, getting less, and going broke."
Obama vowed that the plan he and Congress are writing would be aid for through savings and cost increases on the wealthy, that all patients could keep their doctors, and that a government-run insurance plan would be offered only as an option to spark competition with private insurers.
Republican response to Obama's speech was lukewarm at best.
House Minority Leader John Boehner, R-Ohio, said "if President Obama is serious about reducing the skyrocketing cost of health care, he'll press his own party to include real medical liability reform as part of a reform package that puts patients and doctors in charge of their health care rather than putting the government in charge."
Senate Minority Whip Jon Kyl, R-Ariz., echoed that view.
"Americans don't want Washington-run insurance companies any more than they want Washington-run car companies," Kyl said. "We should stick to a basic principle that all Americans should be able to choose the doctor, hospital, and health plan of their choice. No Washington bureaucrat should interfere with that right, or substitute the government's judgment for that of a physician."
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