Healthcare summit: Is Obama ready to tee up tort reform?

GOP's John Boehner calls Thursday's healthcare summit a 'charade.' But Obama hints he's ready to consider a Republican favorite: tort reform.

Harry Hamburg/AP
Senate minority leader Mitch McConnell, House minority leader John Boehner, Senate minority whip Jon Kyl, and House minority whip Eric Cantor take part in a news conference on Capitol Hill on the eve of the healthcare summit with President Obama.

Expectations could not be lower heading into Thursday’s bipartisan healthcare summit.

Republican leaders have pretty thoroughly disparaged the proposal President Obama unveiled on Monday, which, if nothing else, demonstrated that he has not given up on doing a big reform. The Republicans had been calling on Obama to start over, but instead he came out with a tweaked – and costlier – version of the Senate bill.

In addition, the Republicans have opted not to bring a unified GOP version of reform to the table. House Republicans are sticking with their longstanding proposal, and Senate Republicans are bringing their own, similar ideas.

Boehner: Healthcare summit a 'charade'

On Tuesday, House Republican leader John Boehner called the summit a “charade.” (Linda Feldmann's report on GOP reaction to Obama's proposal.)

Perhaps, then, could this be Obama’s cue to jump in and make something of the six-hour confab, televised live? With expectations so low, the exercise has nowhere to go but up. And so, some analysts expect Obama to offer the Republicans something from their wish list.

“The question is, what kind of give and take there will be at this meeting, serious give and take,” says Peter Fenn, a Democratic strategist. “I would say that the likelihood that there might be several things that get put into the bill that Republicans suggest is fairly high.”

As examples, Mr. Fenn suggests changes to the timing on when provisions start. There could be some fixes on the cost. And there could be some form of tort reform, or changes to the medical malpractice lawsuit system.

Among pundits, the most discussed possibility centers on the last point. Both the House and Senate bills already include pilot projects to study possible modifications to the tort system. These demonstration projects fall far short of what Republicans and physicians have in mind, but they at least represent a bow in that direction.

Obama did not include tort reform in his own healthcare package. But when he met with House Republicans last month in Baltimore, he explicitly mentioned it. (Monitor editorial on healthcare costs.)

Obama hints he's open to tort reform

“From the start, I sought out and supported ideas from Republicans,” Obama said. “I even talked about an issue that has been a holy grail for a lot of you, which was tort reform, and said that I’d be willing to work together as part of a comprehensive package to deal with it.”

But, he added, “I just didn’t get a lot of nibbles.”

If Obama offers some kind of concession on tort reform Thursday, and the Republicans nibble, that could put the president in a tricky spot. Trial lawyers are big donors to Democratic candidates, and they have successfully held tort reform at bay during the year-long debate over how to remake the American healthcare system.

The nonpartisan Congressional Budget Office estimates that reform to the medical malpractice system could save $55 billion over 10 years. Some doctors say the threat of lawsuits leads them to order extra tests and procedures, which drives up healthcare costs. The cost of malpractice insurance can be exorbitant, and has driven doctors out of the practice.

So, will Obama renew the offer? And will the Republicans nibble? Stay tuned.

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