U.S. doctors' group waffles on 'public option'

CHICAGO Wed Jun 17, 2009 3:55pm EDT

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CHICAGO (Reuters) - The leading U.S. doctors' group pronounced itself open to reform of the healthcare system on Wednesday, but said it does not want private insurers to be crowded out of the marketplace by a government-run system.

In a back-and-forth series of votes on the wording of a one-sentence resolution, the American Medical Association's House of Delegates decided to drop language that could be construed as explicit support of a "public option" -- some form of government-operated health insurance.

Instead, the phrase "public option alternatives" was watered down and replaced by the more general "health system reform alternatives."

The AMA statement went on to say reform must be "consistent with AMA principles of pluralism, freedom of choice, freedom of practice and universal access for patients."

"It was very clear people did not want to close the door on alternatives, particularly closing the door by putting a label on alternatives that meant different things to different people," outgoing AMA President Dr. Nancy Nielsen told reporters.

She referred to the public insurance option favored by President Barack Obama -- who lobbied the group that represents 250,000 physicians in a speech to the delegates on Monday -- as the best way to cover the 46 million Americans who lack health insurance.

How to pay for insuring the uninsured that advocates say will cost upwards of $1.2 trillion over the next decade may fall in part to doctors.

Initially, the 500 doctor-delegates passed a resolution that included the words "support public option," but Nielsen intervened, telling the group she was concerned the resolution would be interpreted in Congress as doctors backing government-run health insurance.

"I have avoided that word (public option)," Nielsen told the group. "Because ... we can't support something we haven't seen, also we can't oppose something we haven't seen. I think it goes both ways."

Later, Nielsen tried to clarify the AMA's position.

"We want private insurers to remain. We are not in favor of a single payer (government-operated) system. So there's no question that a healthy competitive market for private insurers is in Americans' best interest," she said.

"We want them to have choice. We also know there need to be market reforms in order to make some of those market alternatives more affordable."

(Editing by Maggie Fox)

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