Obama Addresses Doctors' Malpractice Concerns, But Won't Support Payout Caps

Addressing a sensitive issue, President Obama said Monday that he wants to help doctors who feel like they're always "looking over their shoulders" for fear of malpractice suits, but drew the line at capping awards for patients. 

Obama, addressing the issue in broad strokes as he tried to build support for comprehensive health care reform, told the American Medical Association in Chicago that his ultimate goal is to reduce "excessive defensive medicine" -- in other words, the costly extra tests and treatments doctors order to avoid feeling "legally vulnerable." 

As the crowd started to applaud, the president urged the audience to "hold onto your horses," stating that he does not advocate caps on malpractice awards which he deems "unfair" to patients who are "wrongfully harmed." That drew boos from the crowd. 

But he seemed to open the door to more discussion on malpractice concerns. The Obama administration apparently is willing to consider reforms that could help protect doctors from lawsuits in a bid to win support for a comprehensive health care overhaul from doctors and Senate Republicans. 

"I do think we need to explore a range of ideas about how to put patient safety first, how to let doctors focus on practicing medicine, how to encourage broader use of evidence-based guidelines," Obama said Monday. 

The statement comes after Obama and White House Chief of Staff Rahm Emanuel told lawmakers in a private meeting they would accept some malpractice liability reform if it means progress on health care reform, senior White House officials told FOX News. 

Obama wants the AMA on his side as he pushes for historic legislation. 

Though Obama is pushing it hard, the AMA is cool to the idea of a government-run health care option as a means to cover the 47 million Americans without insurance. The group opposes any public plan tied to continuous taxpayer funding. Such a plan would never run out of funds, and private plans, limited by profit margins and shareholder responsibilities, would not be able to compete, critics warn. 

Pressure recently has built on the organization's resistance to the public option, according to Dr. Robert Hertzka, an anesthesiologist from San Diego and one of 10 elected members to the AMA's policy council. 

The AMA's hostility to a tax-funded public plan made front page news in Thursday's New York Times, which Hertzka said prompted a passionate internal AMS debate over whether the organization dared oppose the White House on such a high-profile issue. By late Thursday, the AMA released a statement that it was open to a "public option" that had non-profit components, similar to co-operatives. North Dakota Sen. Kent Conrad, the Democratic head of the Budget Committee, has circulated such an idea, which the White House has yet to endorse or dismiss. 

Medical malpractice is one issue where the AMA did not want to lose negotiating clout and figured prominently in its decision not to close off all consideration of a health care "public option." 

Hertzka said Obama could win over many doctors if he pushes publicly for medical liability reforms. 

That question looms large as none of the bills currently circulating in Congress contain medical liability reforms. Democrats have traditionally opposed them, owing in part to the financial support the party receives from trial lawyers. 

Obama has never endorsed capping malpractice awards, but has sought to shield doctors who follow standard and established procedures from lawsuits. Doctors are reluctant to discuss errors or share information about them for fear of being sued. Obama's health team is adamant about creating ways for doctors and hospitals to share such information as a means of improving care and reducing unnecessary costs. Creating protections for doctors who follow procedures from lawsuits would move the debate in this direction. 

One top Obama adviser told FOX News the White House understands Democrats may object to malpractice reforms, but that a health care deal requires movement on all sides and if doctor and GOP buy-in can be achieved this way, Obama will not hesitate to pursue it. 

"If they need it and it makes sense and it helps us get to the final deal, then we're there," the adviser said. "The key is success. Getting a bill signed into law." 

FOX News' Major Garrett contributed to this report.