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Doctors Come to Press Congress on Medical Malpractice

Lawmakers and their staffers next week will get an earful about the ailments facing the medical profession as more than 500 members of the American Medical Association arrive in Washington, D.C., for their annual National Advocacy Conference.

With one of the largest lobbying budgets on K Street, the doctors group has an ambitious legislative agenda, only part of which matches the priorities of the Republicans who now control the House.

The AMA will be pressing Congress this year to enact caps on medical malpractice awards, which is also a priority of the Republican leaders in the House. President Barack Obama, in his State of the Union address, also signalled his willingness to consider medical malpractice reforms.

But the AMA has been at odds with Republicans over the massive health care law approved last year. Despite some dissension within their ranks, the doctors group endorsed the overhaul that was signed by Obama last year. The association has opposed the law’s repeal. The House last month voted for the repeal while Senate Democrats beat back a similar GOP effort in that chamber.

AMA President Cecil Wilson said in a recent blog post on the AMA website that while the law needs some changes, it did not make sense to scrap the whole thing, arguing that the likelihood of it being replaced would be “slim to none.”

“Repeal would risk losing major gains in the bill and be like the proverbial throwing the baby out with the bathwater,” Wilson wrote. “My suggestion: Wash the baby and drain out the dirty water.”

Wilson said changes that need to be made include fixing the Medicare physician payment system, which has been an annual fiscal headache for doctors and lawmakers. Every year Congress scrambles to find funds to prevent large cuts in Medicare payments to doctors. The latest “doc fix” will run out at the end of this year.

In 2010 the AMA spent almost $22 million on lobbying, ranking it among the top 10 companies and associations in terms of lobbying expenditures. Even though lobbying expenditures overall were down last year among health care-related companies and groups, the AMA spent $2 million more last year than in 2009, as it lobbied for fixes to the Medicare reimbursement formula.

The doctors are scheduled to arrive in Washington on Tuesday night, and many will be visiting lawmakers’ offices Wednesday and Thursday afternoon. They will also have a Capitol Hill briefing, which will be led by the AMA’s lobbying staff: Richard Deem, senior vice president for advocacy; Cynthia Brown, vice president of government affairs; and Todd Askew, director of Congressional affairs.

They will also hear from Rep. Phil Gingrey (R-Ga.), a physician and co-sponsor of legislation that would limit noneconomic and punitive damage awards in medical malpractice lawsuits.

Also addressing the conference will be Karen Ignagni, president of America’s Health Insurance Plans, and Charles Kahn III, the president of the Federation of American Hospitals. Donald Berwick, the administrator for the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services, will also address the group.

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