CHICAGO (Reuters) - President Barack Obama warned doctors on Monday the U.S. healthcare system was a ticking time bomb and urged them to support his overhaul, which includes a public insurance plan that many of them view with skepticism.
Obama took his healthcare campaign to the annual meeting of the influential American Medical Association, which represents 250,000 doctors and has historically been opposed to a bigger government role in healthcare.
“If we do not fix our healthcare system, America may go the way of GM; paying more, getting less, and going broke,” Obama said, likening the healthcare system to struggling carmaker General Motors, which has filed for bankruptcy protection.
“Make no mistake: the cost of our healthcare is a threat to our economy,” said Obama, who wants a healthcare reform bill on his desk by October.
“It is a ticking time bomb for the federal budget. And it is unsustainable for the United States of America,” he said.
The U.S. healthcare industry costs about $2.5 trillion annually but leaves 46 million Americans uninsured and with little access to medical care.
Obama’s speech comes as debate sharpens over elements of the healthcare overhaul being drafted by Congress, including how to pay for the plan and whether it should include a public insurance program to compete with private insurers.
Health-related stocks fell more steeply than the 2.13 percent tumble in the Dow Jones Industrial Average on Monday. The Morgan Stanley Healthcare Payor index fell 2.95 percent while the Amex Pharmaceutical index fell 2.85 percent.
The chief executive of Aetna Inc, the No. 3 health insurer, told Reuters that Obama’s remarks were a “step in the right direction.” CEO Ronald Williams also said Aetna would focus on promoting public-private partnerships as part of reforms.
Many Republicans reject a public plan and say there is not enough support in Congress for it. They argue it would ultimately drive private insurers out of business.
The AMA also has expressed doubts about any public plan that would be similar to the Medicare program for the elderly. Doctors have struggled for years over Medicare fees that face annual cuts each year by lawmakers.
“I understand you are concerned that today’s Medicare rates will be applied broadly in a way that means our cost savings are coming off your backs,” Obama said. “These are legitimate concerns, but ones, I believe, that can be overcome.”
After hearing Obama’s speech, the AMA said it was premature to judge the administration without knowing details of how it planned to change the health insurance system.
“What you heard today was a call for a thoughtful analysis of all the options,” AMA President Dr Nancy Nielsen said.
Obama received a standing ovation when he raised the issue of doctors being afraid to practice because of lawsuits, but there were a few boos seconds later when he said he did not support caps on malpractice awards.
Instead, Obama called for exploring a range of ideas to scale back “excessive defensive medicine.”
Doctors have long complained they have to shoulder high malpractice insurance premiums because of the lack of limits on malpractice suits, and those costs are often passed on to patients in the form of higher fees.
Obama said a public healthcare plan would “inject competition into the healthcare market that forces waste out of the system and keeps the insurance companies honest.”
He acknowledged that expanding coverage to all Americans would have a short-term cost but stressed it would not add to the deficit in the next decade.
But with some estimates putting the cost of healthcare reform at $1.2 trillion, critics say the reforms will only add to the country’s growing mountain of debt.
The Congressional Budget Office said in a preliminary estimate on Monday that a Senate Democratic healthcare plan — which closely mirrors Obama’s own wishlist — would add $1 trillion to the deficit over 10 years and still leave millions uninsured.
“There are already voices saying the numbers don’t add up. They are wrong,” Obama said, outlining how he planned to pay for the reforms, including tax increases on wealthier Americans and savings in spending cuts.
In Washington, a Senate Republican leader, Jon Kyl, predicted momentum for healthcare reform would slow as the public learns more about Democrats’ plans.
“He knows momentum will inevitably slow for something that is extraordinarily costly, will deny people coverage that they already have, will ration their healthcare and could provide some kind of government insurance company that is going to drive out private insurance companies.”
Writing by David Alexander and Ross Colvin, additional reporting by Andrew Stern in Chicago, editing by Eric Beech