From NBC's Athena Jones
CHICAGO -- President Obama took his case for overhauling the health care system and allowing people to buy into a government-sponsored insurance plan directly to doctors Monday, delivering a nearly hour-long speech to the American Medical Association.
Blaming the fear tactics of the past for the current failures of the health-care system, Obama repeatedly told his audience that no one would be forced to give up their private insurance.
"I know there are millions of Americans who are content with their health care coverage," he said. "No one will take it away. No matter what."
Video: President Obama took his case for an overhaul of the U.S. health care system to the American Medical Association convention in Chicago. NBC's Chuck Todd reports.
Obama has made restructuring the health-care system a top priority of his administration, calling it "the single most important thing we can do for America's long-term fiscal health" and urging Congress to get a bill on his desk by October.
The audience at the annual meeting of the powerful physicians' group -- whose leader last week expressed concerns about a public plan -- interrupted the president frequently with applause. They clapped when he said overhauling the system would allow doctors to be healers instead of "bean-counters and paper-pushers," that more should be done to reward medical students who choose to become primary-care physicians or work in underserved communities and that research on best practices was not meant to dictate the kind of care that should be provided.
The most notable moment came when Obama acknowledged that change would be difficult if doctors feel like they are "constantly looking over their shoulders for fear of lawsuits."
The crowd applauded, but then Obama warned, "Don't get too excited yet."
Those cheers turned to boos when he went on to say that he was not advocating a cap on malpractice awards, which many doctors support, because such caps could be unfair to people who have been hurt.
"I want to work with the AMA," he said, "so we can scale back the excessive defensive medicine that reinforces our current system and shift to a system where we are providing better care simply -- rather than simply more treatment."
Still, the speech was billed as a "big-picture" look at the kinds of changes Obama wants to see in the health-care system and -- just as he did last week at his first town hall on the issue in Green Bay, Wisc. -- the president offered mainly broad guidelines, rather than specifics.
He said making health care affordable for everyone would cost some $1 trillion over the next decade and then went on to spell out some $950 billion in estimated cost savings that could come from introducing competitive bidding into the Medicare Advantage Program, changing how Medicare reimburses hospitals, encouraging generic drugs and other measures.
He said these savings would offset the cost of health care reform over the next 10 years, an argument he made in his weekly radio address on Saturday.
Obama again used the recent bankruptcies of two of America's Big Three carmakers to link the issue to the economy, though he went a step further today than he did in Wisconsin to drive his point home.
"A big part of what led General Motors and Chrysler into trouble in recent decades were their huge costs they racked up providing health care for their workers; costs that made them less profitable and less competitive with automakers around the world," 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."
House Republican Leader John Boehner (R-OH) put out a statement after the speech saying he was pleased that Obama had addressed the issue of medical malpractice.
"We're pleased the President has expressed rhetorical support for medical liability reform," Boehner said, in part, "but fact is the effect of even the strongest medical liability reforms would be negated by a government takeover of health care that raises taxes, rations care, and drives health care costs even higher. If President Obama is serious about reducing the skyrocketing cost of health care, he'll press his own party to include real medical liability reform as part of a reform package that puts patients and doctors in charge of their health care rather than putting government in charge."
Boehner's statement came after a conference call before the speech, hosted by the Republican National Committee, in which Georgia Congressman Tom Price (R), who is himself an orthopedic surgeon, equated a government-backed health-insurance option with a government "takeover" that would put private insurers out of business.