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the Chicago Tribune

Obama Tells AMA US Health-Care Costs Are a 'Ticking Time Bomb'

John McCormick and Bruce Japsen

U.S. President Barack Obama delivers remarks on the health care system at the annual meeting of the American Medical Association in Chicago, Illinois, June 15, 2009. (REUTERS/Jonathan Ernst)

President Barack Obama called the cost of health care a "ticking time-bomb" that threatens to slow the nation's economic recovery as he pushed a massive reform plan during an appearance today in Chicago before the nation's largest doctors group.

"We are spending over $2 trillion a year on health care -- almost 50 percent more per person than the next most costly nation," he said during a nearly hour-long speech before the American Medical Association. "For all this spending, more of our citizens are uninsured, the quality of our care is often lower and we aren't any healthier."

Awaiting the president at the Hyatt Regency Chicago and elsewhere were protesters who don't think his approach goes far enough, as well as at least some doctors who are concerned he might go too far.

Still, Obama was warmly received by the AMA convention, which gave him numerous standing ovations and booed just once, when he said he does not support caps on malpractice awards.

The appearance marked Obama's latest effort to pitch a massive health care proposal -- the top legislative priority of his young presidency -- that is expected to dominate the congressional calendar in the coming weeks ahead of his goal of October passage.

"The cost of our health care is a threat to our economy," he said. "It is an escalating burden on our families and businesses. It's a ticking time-bomb for the federal budget. And it is unsustainable for the United States of America."

Obama also pointed to the costs incurred by companies to provide health care.

"A big part of what led General Motors and Chrysler into trouble in recent decades were the huge costs they racked up providing health care for their workers," he said. "If we do not fix our health care system, America may go the way of GM: paying more, getting less and going broke."

The president called said the status quo cannot be sustained. "Reform is not a luxury, it is a necessity," he said.

Making just his second visit to Chicago since the inauguration, Obama landed at O'Hare International Airport at 10:15 a.m. in advance of the midday speech.

After getting off Air Force One, Obama shook hands and spoke for a few minutes with Gov. Pat Quinn and Mayor Richard Daley. He was then flown by helicopter to parking lot near Soldier Field, preventing the traffic snarl that a motorcade would have created.

Obama sought to preempt attacks against his plan.

"I understand that fear. I understand the cynicism. There are scars left over from past efforts at reform," he said, pointing to reform efforts that have taken place since Teddy Roosevelt.

"While significant individual reforms have been made -- such as Medicare, Medicaid, and the children's health insurance program -- efforts at comprehensive reform that covers everyone and brings down costs have largely failed," he said.

Speaking before about 2,200 people, Obama stressed that his proposal will not add to the federal deficit, even though there will be significant up-front costs. His proposals call for $950 billion in revenue and savings to pay for reform.

"We know the moment is right for health care reform," he said. "We know this is an historic opportunity we've never seen before and may not see again. But we also know that there are those who will try and scuttle this opportunity no matter what, who will use the same scare tactics and fear-mongering that's worked in the past. They will give dire warnings about socialized medicine and government takeovers; long lines and rationed care; decisions made by bureaucrats and not doctors."

As a candidate and president, Obama has long maintained that high health care costs are hurting America's competitiveness in the global economy and that coverage must be found for most of the nearly 50 million Americans who now lack insurance.

Since returning from a recent trip to the Middle East and Europe, Obama has primarily focused on health care reform, pushing Congress and various constituencies to act this year.

He has outlined proposals to lower costs and raise taxes to pay for an overhaul of the nation's ever-expanding health care system, including the creation of a government-funded "public" option.

Republican leaders have joined Obama and Democrats in supporting health care reform, although they have suggested a public option could be unfair to private insurers and could easily become another bloated government program.

In a conference call with reporters sponsored by the Republican National Committee, Rep. Tom Price (R-Ga.), a doctor attending the AMA conference, charged that physicians are concerned Obama's plan will mean that medical decisions will be moved from patients and doctors to a "government-takeover."

On Thursday, Obama made the first physical stop in his health care campaign in Green Bay, Wis., where he appeared before a friendly audience at a town hall-style event.

He was greeted by demonstrators holding signs that said such things as "No socialism" and "Taxed Enough Yet?" Some conservative opponents have also begun to label his plans "ObamaCare."

Monday's audience was a tougher crowd than the one in Wisconsin, with many of those in attendance more educated on the issue and also more politically diverse. The AMA has already expressed concern over Obama's call for expanded public insurance.

Though the AMA has lost some of its clout in recent years, the Chicago-based group is still the largest physician lobby, representing a quarter of a million doctors.

The House of Delegates that Obama will address has an even broader reach, representing 180 state and national medical societies that include everything from family doctors and psychiatrists to cardiologists and neurosurgeons.

How to pay for the overhaul is one of the key questions.

During the weekend, Obama suggested some of the money for his proposal could come from $313 billion in government savings during the next decade that he hopes will come from greater Medicare efficiency, lower drug prices and a reduction in the uninsured.

The $313 billion would be in addition to the $635 billion "down payment" he put in his 2010 budget for the health care proposal.

The cuts in government health care spending proposed over the weekend have already triggered push back from hospitals and others in the medical industry.

Obama, meanwhile, has said repeatedly that he supports a public option that would bring more competition to the private insurance market. What is unclear, however, is what that public option would look like.

Doctors meeting the AMA's annual policy-making House of Delegates session have said they are anxious to hear the president's proposal, which has thus far been devoid of details.

AMA leaders said they are opposed to a government-funded option if it were to expand the Medicare health insurance program for the elderly to those under age 65, saying it would compound a "broken system" doctors complain has reduced physician payments and is outdated in how it operates.

Members, however, say they would favor a public option that was administered by private plans, such as the health insurance provided to federal employees and members of Congress.

Some other doctor groups, however, favor a public option and plan to try to let Obama know that. A group called Health Care for America Now plans to demonstrate beginning at 10:45 a.m. in front of the University of Chicago's Gleacher Center, 450 N. Cityfront Plaza Drive.

In addition, advocates of a single-payer, government run approach that would eliminate private insurance companies have planned a protest near the Tribune Tower, 435 N. Michigan Ave. The group, which includes long-time single payer advocate, Physicians for a National Health Program, planned to gather before the president spoke.

Also protesting Obama's visit is the Pro-Life Action League, which is calling on him to "follow through on his desire to reduce abortion" by withdrawing federal funding for Planned Parenthood and taking other actions.

Several AMA delegates, who have been meeting in Chicago since Saturday, said they are thrilled the president decided to address them. Obama is the first president to speak before an AMA House of Delegates meeting since Republican Ronald Reagan did so in 1983.

AMA leaders say they felt snubbed during the failed health reform push of the early 1990s, an effort led by former President Bill Clinton and then-First Lady Hillary Clinton.

"We were left out the last time, and doctors remember that," said Dr. John McGill, of Bangor, Maine, an AMA delegate from the American Society of Plastic Surgeons.

After his speech, Obama will fly back to Washington, where his afternoon schedule calls for an Oval Office meeting with Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi.

Also in Chicago today is White House Chief of Staff Rahm Emanuel, who will headline a fundraiser to benefit the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee and Senate candidates.

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