CHICAGO — President Barack Obama bluntly told doctors Monday he opposes their highest legislative priority — limiting malpractice awards — and got a smattering of boos from an audience he is courting for his health care overhaul plan.
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 before the American Medical Association.
"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 hourlong speech before the nation's largest doctors group. "For all this spending, more of our citizens are uninsured, the quality of our care is often lower, and we aren't any healthier."
Still, Obama was warmly received by the 2,200 people at the AMA convention, which gave him many 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 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."
Obama also sought to pre-empt attacks against his plan by interest groups, lobbyists and others.
"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.
GOP Rep. Tom Price of Georgia — a former orthopedic surgeon — accused Obama of seeking a "government takeover" of health care. Speaking to reporters on a conference call organized by the national Republican Party before Obama's address, Price said a committee that Obama's administration has established to study medical treatments would turn into a "rationing board" to overrule doctors and deny patients care.
Several doctors in the audience gave Obama high marks for his address and urged AMA leaders not to obstruct the overhaul. "AMA definitely needs to compromise because otherwise they will become irrelevant," said Dr. Nicholas B. Vedder, a Seattle plastic surgeon.
Dr. Michael Goldrich, a New Brunswick, N.J., head and neck specialist, said he shares the president's desire to focus on preventive medicine and improve health care access, but opposes any kind of public insurance option.