- The Washington Times - Monday, June 15, 2009

President Obama is scheduled to meet Monday with the country’s largest physicians organization, one of the most prominent in a growing group of opponents to his health care reform plans.

The American Medical Association (AMA) said last week that it opposes a proposal gaining momentum among congressional Democrats and Mr. Obama to create a public health insurance plan as part of a massive effort to reform the health care industry.

Meanwhile, a top Senate Republican is urging Mr. Obama to support taxing employer health benefits to pay for reform, an idea that has attracted some bipartisan support in the Senate, but which Mr. Obama pounded Republican Sen. John McCain for proposing during the presidential race.

“It looks like he’s looking at doing similar to what McCain wanted to do, and I think for the benefit of making this bipartisan, presidential leadership in this area would be very good based upon the tune of the last campaign,” said Sen. Charles E. Grassley, Iowa Republican and ranking member of the Finance Committee, which is expected to submit a bill this week that would tax the most expensive benefits.

Sen. Christopher J. Dodd, acting chairman of the Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee, said during a joint appearance with Mr. Grassley on “Fox News Sunday” that he’s against taxing the benefits.

“I mean, the idea that you’re going to have people out there that are struggling to make ends meet today, they’re falling further and further behind with wages, people losing jobs, losing homes - to turn around and say, ‘You basically have no change in your health care plan, and by the way, we’re going to tax you now for those benefits’ - we can actually pay for this” with proposals Mr. Obama has made, he said.

Vice President Joseph R. Biden Jr., appearing on NBC’s “Meet the Press,” said the administration doesn’t want to tax benefits either, but declined to issue a veto threat over the proposal.

The trip to AMA’s annual meeting in Chicago is Mr. Obama’s second outside Washington to stir support for health care reform. He went to Green Bay, Wis., last week for a town hall meeting.

Mr. Obama is expected to walk through the case for health care reform, including how medicine is delivered and how efficiency could be improved, White House press secretary Robert Gibbs told reporters.

Since the public insurance plan has gained supporters in Congress, upon Mr. Obama’s urging, outside groups have relaxed their initial reluctance to speak out against reform proposals to risk looking like spoilsports.

The U.S. Chamber of Commerce told a Senate panel that current proposals are “not reform.”

“It would make the system even worse for employers and those who value free-market competition,” said Randel Jackson, the chamber’s vice president of labor, immigrant and employee benefits.

The chamber opposes a mandate to require employers to offer health care benefits, as well as the swift nature of the debate. The chamber was one of several business groups, many of which have suggested that they won’t support a public plan, that met late Friday to discuss health care.

Chamber President Thomas J. Donohue said Sunday that there shouldn’t be a mandate on campanies, nor a public plan.

“If you’re going to do a federal plan, I think you’ve got a real problem, because you’re going to have more opposition to what we’re trying to do here than you can imagine, because you’re going to put everybody else in a very difficult position and a noncompetitive position,” he said on “Fox News Sunday.”

Congressional Republicans are also largely against the early versions of the health care plan put together by the Senate’s health panel.

But Mr. Dodd, Connecticut Democrat, said the bill is merely a draft and stressed that he’s open to compromises. Democrats argue that a public plan is the only way to ensure that all Americans have coverage, which would drive down health costs for all.

But the AMA said it is concerned a public plan would not fully reimburse physicians.

“The AMA strongly opposes … a public health insurance plan operated by the federal government with a payment schedule that is set in statute and is based on Medicare,” said Dr. Samantha Rosman, a member of the AMA’s board of trustees and a physician at the Boston Medical Center, in prepared testimony.

She was one of several panelists at the Senate health panel’s hearing last week. The AMA is in favor of an alternative option that isn’t run by the government, she said. The AMA has about 250,000 physician members, making it a powerful political lobby.

Rep. Michael C. Burgess, Texas Republican, an obstetrician and member of the AMA, said doctors have a large voice in the debate.

“Doctors do have an enormous about of equity in their communities, and doctors oftentimes underestimate the amount of intellectual and political capital that they have in their hands,” he said.

But he said he hopes doctors get a chance to inform the president of what they think.

“I hope there’s an opportunity for a two-way discussion. I hope it’s a dialogue and not a monologue,” he said. “If they are uncomfortable with what they are seeing … they need to make the president aware of that.”

• Jennifer Haberkorn can be reached at jhaberkorn@washingtontimes.com.old.

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