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Obama issues US doctors stern pitch for health fix

WASHINGTON — President Barack Obama told American doctors Monday they must join him in fixing a crumbling health care system, pitching an overhaul to a group deeply suspicious of government meddling.

To a degree, Obama’s appearance Monday smacked of his having walked into the lion’s den. While American physicians are discouraged and even angry about a system that overburdens them with paperwork and allows private insurance companies too much power to dictate treatment, many doctors are even more concerned about government involvement in their relationship with patients.

Denying yet again he wants to establish a government-run system of “socialized” medicine, Obama told a meeting of the powerful American Medical Association to beware of “scare tactics and fear-mongering” from those with a vested interest in the current system.

“They’ll give dire warnings about socialized medicine and government takeovers; long lines and rationed care; decisions made by bureaucrats and not doctors. We’ve heard it all before — and because these fear tactics have worked, things have kept getting worse,” Obama said at the AMA gathering in Chicago.

In one of his longest dissertations on the need for reform, Obama yet again promised Americans:

“If you like your doctor, you will be able to keep your doctor. Period. If you like your health care plan, you will be able to keep your health care plan. Period. No one will take it away. No matter what.”

Aside from the extraordinary growth in health care costs, Obama again raised the needs of an estimated 50 million Americans who have no insurance to help with medical costs, creating a reality “where a single illness can wipe out a lifetime of savings.”

The United States spends about two-and-half times as much on health care as other industrialized countries, but its citizens do not enjoy longer life expectancies than nations that spend far less.

A 2003 study estimated that health care costs for the uninsured account for about 3 percent of health care spending, with taxpayers covering about 80 percent to 85 percent of the cost through a variety of government programs.

With its multiple layers of private insurance companies and public health programs, administrative costs in the U.S. are higher than in other countries. A 2005 study estimated administrative costs in California — the most populous state — at about 20 percent, and a national study from the 1990s put the share at 25 percent.

In a speech that stretched to nearly an hour, Obama made news when he recommended that all Americans — except those too poor to afford it — be required to have health insurance, whether through the private system or his proposal for creating a “government option.”

“Every American bears responsibility for owning health insurance,” the president said, adding that the government would help those without the means to buy even the most inexpensive and bare-bones coverage.

And the somewhat muted response that greeted Obama applause lines from the gathered physicians turned outwardly negative when the president said he did not favor setting upper limits on awards to patients who successfully sue their doctors for malpractice.

Doctors complain that part of the big rise in the cost of health care grows out of the burgeoning price they must pay to insure themselves against law suits from patients who claim they were not given proper care.

While glancing off plans ranging from savings through computerized medical records to cutting the cost of medical education, Obama sought to drive home the need for reform by telling the assembled physicians that the system is “a ticking bomb.”

Health care spending, Obama said, could force America to “go the way of GM — paying more, getting less, and going broke.” General Motors is the American automaker that recently filed for bankruptcy in part because of the cost of insuring the health of its workers and retirees.

While standing alone as the only major industrial nation without a government health care system, the issue has deep philosophical roots in the United States. Most Republican lawmakers, organizations in the health care industry, insurance companies and some conservative Democrats are balking at even the modest government intervention in the system.

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