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Seniors, doctors give key boost to health bill

With a historic House vote on a $1-trillion healthcare bill barely 48 hours away, battle lines are hardening as lobbying groups for seniors and doctors endorse the legislation, while thousands of protesters swarmed Capitol Hill to oppose it.

“Kill the bill! Kill the bill!” chanted conservative and small-government advocates Thursday, some having traveled on short notice from as far as California and Texas to protest what they saw as tantamount to socialized medicine. “No Marx. No Mao,” one protest sign read. “No socialized anything,” read another.

Democratic leaders, who are making a last-minute push to nail down a majority vote for their overhaul plan, touted endorsements by the AARP and the American Medical Assn. The endorsement by the AARP was prized because of the electoral power that seniors traditionally wield. The AMA, though less powerful than it once was when it helped stymie past healthcare campaigns, is still seen as one of the nation’s leading healthcare groups.

The public pressure from left and right provided a dramatic background for a scheduled floor debate Saturday -- with a vote expected later that day.

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The angry voices of opposition echoed the conservative protests that have been heard this year at anti-tax “tea party” rallies, as well as at congressional town hall meetings on healthcare and in some of the campaigns leading up to Tuesday’s off-year elections.

Though the rally in front of the Capitol was peaceful, Capitol Police arrested 21 antiabortion activists and others inside House and Senate office buildings for disorderly conduct and related charges.

Some Republicans have tried to keep their distance from the tea party movement because of some divisive rhetoric -- such as protest signs seen Thursday linking President Obama and the healthcare bill to Nazi Germany.

Nonetheless, dozens of House Republicans, including their top party leaders, embraced the cause by appearing on the steps of the Capitol to address the crowd.

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House Republican leader John A. Boehner (R-Ohio) denounced the healthcare bill as “the biggest threat to freedom I have seen in the 19 years I’ve been here in Washington.”

The crowd’s biggest cheers were for Rep. Michelle Bachmann (R-Minn.), a first-term star of grass-roots conservatives who had, on cable television last week, invited health bill opponents to come to the rally and lobby lawmakers.

“You came to your House,” she said, standing at a podium beside a towering stack of paper that was the text of the healthcare bill. “You came for an emergency House call.”

No House Republican is expected to vote for the bill, so Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-San Francisco) has been laboring to nail down the 218 votes she needs from her own party’s ranks. Obama is slated to address the House Democratic Caucus today as part of the final push for votes. Democrats also secured one new vote Thursday when Pelosi swore in Rep. John Garamendi (D-Calif.), who won a special election Tuesday. Another special election winner, Democrat Bill Owens of New York, is to be sworn in today.

The bill’s endorsement by the doctors’ and seniors’ lobby groups -- in addition to support announced by the American Cancer Society Cancer Action Network -- helps counter mounting opposition among employer groups that are stepping up their advertising campaign against the bill.

The AARP has been pushing for a health overhaul for more than a year, but it had withheld a formal endorsement of any of the healthcare bills being developed by congressional Democrats. On Thursday, AARP Executive Vice President Nancy LeaMond said the group saw the House Democratic bill as the most promising proposal.

“We can say with confidence that it meets our priorities for protecting Medicare, providing more affordable insurance for 50- to 64-year-olds and reforming our healthcare system,” she said at the group’s Washington headquarters.

The group plans to promote the bill to its 40 million members and other Americans through publications, advertising and e-mails to its activists.

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The AMA’s endorsement had been thrown in question when Congress delayed action on a related measure that is the group’s top priority -- a bill to cancel a scheduled cut in Medicare payment rates to doctors. But Democratic leaders said that issue would be addressed later this year.

In announcing the group’s endorsement Thursday, AMA President J. James Rohack said, “The time to make health system reform a reality is now.”

He added that the measure “is not the perfect bill . . . but it goes a long way toward expanding access to high-quality affordable health coverage for all Americans.”

The AMA’s support comes ahead of a crucial policymaking meeting of its House of Delegates in Houston that begins Saturday. The organization is being asked by some constituencies, at the eleventh hour, to back away from supporting healthcare reform.

“These bills go far beyond what is necessary to fix what is broken with our healthcare system, and they grant the federal government considerable new powers and authority, which could ultimately amount to a complete government takeover of healthcare, and which is anathema to doctors and patients,” reads a resolution introduced by three associations of surgeons.

The AMA, which represents a quarter of a million physicians, thinks the House bill backs goals supported by the majority of its members because doctors will have a choice on whether to participate in a government-run insurance plan, the so-called public option. In addition, the AMA has said the rates paid to doctors under that plan are going to be better than those they receive from the Medicare health insurance program for the elderly, which is also key to the group’s support.

But the AMA has drawn criticism from some doctors and conservative talk shows. A source close to the AMA said its internal polling has shown doctors to be closely divided on a public option and healthcare reform proposed by Democrats, but 20% or more of doctors across the country also are undecided on what to support.

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janet.hook@latimes.com

noam.levy@latimes.com

Kim Geiger and Alex Hart in Washington and Bruce R. Japsen in Chicago contributed to this report.


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