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Would your lawmaker support public health insurance?
By Robert McCoppin | Daily Herald Staff
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Published: 6/15/2009 12:00 AM | Updated: 6/15/2009 8:25 PM

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Suburban patients would benefit from President Obama's health-care overhaul, local doctors said Monday after the president came to Chicago to try to sell his reforms to the nation's physicians.

In a speech to the American Medical Association, Obama reassured doctors and patients he would not take away health-care plans they want to keep, but would give uninsured Americans the option of a new, affordable public health insurance plan.

The message should resonate throughout the suburbs, where traditionally high rates of employer-provided health care have given way to the realization that many are just a pink slip away from losing health-care coverage. Rates of uninsured were above the statewide average in Cook, Lake and Kane counties even in 2005, according to a U.S. Census Bureau report released late last year. And many who are uninsured cannot qualify or pay for policies on their own.

"If people think there's no people on public aid, who are uninsured, obese, or smokers in the suburbs - they're mistaken," said Dr. Steve Malkin, an Arlington Heights internist who heard Obama's speech.

AMA delegates generally welcomed Obama's proposal, saying that in the long run the current health-care system's high costs and restricted access are unsustainable.

But the president's disclosure that he wouldn't help them win limits on jury damages in medical malpractice cases got a cooler reception.

Malkin said Obama "fell flat" on that issue, saying medical malpractice awards raise doctors' insurance rates and patient costs. This is an issue of keen local interest, Malkin said, because Cook County has the second-highest rate of malpractice lawsuits in the nation.

To encourage people to take responsibility for their own health, the president proposed incentives for those who keep their cholesterol, blood pressure and other indicators healthy, similar to a plan that's saved 20 percent on premiums for employees at Safeway grocery stores.

More broadly, the president proposed a "health insurance exchange" that would let the public do one-stop cost comparison shopping and would include a public insurance option.

Though the AMA previously voiced opposition to public health plans, officials said they are now open to proposals. and delegates were expected to vote on the issue before their annual meeting ends Wednesday.

Despite past opposition to such concepts, doctors gave Obama's speech a rousing reception, with numerous standing ovations. One area that got loud applause was a promise to make insurance companies responsible by ending denial of coverage for pre-existing conditions - which his own mother worried about during her cancer.

"The days of cherry-picking who to cover and who to deny, those days are over," Obama said.

Perhaps the biggest ovation came to Obama's main point: "We are not a nation that accepts nearly 46 million uninsured men, women and children... We are a people who look out for one another. That is what makes this the United States of America."

The president maintained he could pay for most of his health-care reform plan through $950 billion in cost reductions and efficiencies from investments like electronic medical records, generic drugs, paying hospitals less for uninsured patients, and comparative research to see what treatments work best.

He said he would work with the doctors, Congress and other interested parties to achieve reform without increasing the federal deficit.

He called the current system "a ticking bomb" that will soon suck up one out of every five dollars spent in our economy.

"If we do not fix our health care system," Obama said, "America may go the way of GM - paying more, getting less, and going broke."

Dr. James Milam, an obstetrician/gynecologist in Vernon Hills, welcomed Obama's invitation to participate in crafting a plan with lawmakers this summer, unlike the Clinton administration.

Milam expected some of the costs to be paid by taxing health benefits of high-income workers. He also said the Medicaid payment formula has to be fixed and increased.

But in the long run, he believed, such additional expenses will be made up by savings on other indirect costs that affluent patients now pay, such as increased insurance premiums that help cover uninsured patients who go to emergency rooms for primary care.

"Even if patients believe they are well off and someone else is paying for their coverage," Milam said, "we have out-of-control costs that are no longer sustainable, and we are all in this together.'

AMA President-elect Dr. James Rohack said this is a crucial point in getting health care reform passed.

"This may be the best chance," he said, "and the last chance in a decade."

• The Associated Press contributed to this report