As the president travels around the country to build support for an overhaul of the health care system, the medical industry is trying to scare up opposition to his plan with claims that Obama seeks to deny patients the lifesaving tests they need.

While Obama held a town hall meeting and talked with governors today, industry advocacy groups gathered in Washington to put the squeeze on Congress.

Pharmaceutical and medical imaging companies, among others, were behind a “bipartisan” letter to Obama from 57 House members objecting to any cuts in Medicare reimbursement for procedures that yield these companies big bucks.

MRIs and other medical scans for Medicare patients, pushed by the health industry, cost the government billions of dollars, much of which could help finance other needed aspects of overall health care reform.

The health industry and the U.S. Chamber of Commerce are among those leading the charge for unlimited government reimbursement for such procedures, the use of which grew to $182 million in 2007.

Administration officials have cited figures showing that Medicare payments for these procedures doubled from $7 billion in 2000 to $14 billion in 2006, while their medical necessity or effectiveness is often questionable. Obama has said that one source of possible savings is to reduce these payments by $5.9 billion over the next decade. At the same time, the president also says quality and affordable health care requires measures to determine the real effectiveness of these and other procedures that provide lush profits to medical companies. No surprise, these measures are also being fought by the same companies and their front groups.

Meanwhile, parts of the medical industry, fearful that a new health care system could cut into their profits, are moving to cut potential losses.

The Pharmaceutical Research and Manufacturers of America made a deal last week with the White House and Congress in which they promised to contribute $80 billion over the next decade by lowering drug costs for some seniors and by “paying” for a portion of health care overhaul.

The big insurance companies, however, continue to focus their opposition on Obama’s proposal for a public insurance option.

Only yesterday, senators received letters from America’s Health Insurance Plans and Blue Cross Blue Shield that claimed creating an optional public insurance plan would “wreck the coverage many people get from their employers.”

Bert Newcombe, benefits coordinator for Local 464A of the United Food and Commercial Workers, commented sarcastically, “Suddenly they are concerned about the quality of insurance available for workers.”

“We support the public option,” Newcombe said in a phone interview. “A public plan is the only way that Obama and the Congress have to push insurance companies into reducing their prices.”

Labor unions and their allies plan a Capitol Hill rally tomorrow in support of Obama’s health care efforts. Speakers include Edie Falco, who now stars in the Showtime series “Nurse Jackie.”

Health Care for America Now, a coalition of progressive and labor groups, is running a television ad campaign in 10 states, including states with lawmakers on committees writing the legislation.

The Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee is in its second week of hammering out a bill. House Democratic leaders put theirs out last Friday, and another measure is emerging in the Senate Finance Committee.

As the committees work, the health care industry is bombarding them with calls to defeat both the public option and any attempts to reduce government reimbursements for profitable medical procedures.

The Chamber of Commerce sent letters to the Senate last week saying it would oppose the bill because it would be “harmful to businesses of all sizes, to the economy, and to American workers.”

The Chamber’s letter, unions point out, offered no alternative. “They’re not interested in doing anything to help either workers with insurance or the 47 million uninsured,” said Newcombe. “They simply want to kill any and all provisions that require employers to provide coverage and they want to kill the public option.”

The public seems to be seeing through industry attempts to create confusion about health care reform.

Eric Burton, 42, was interviewed after he left the Brooklyn, N.Y., Methodist Hospital emergency room where he was treated for a broken finger, June 19.

Burton took issue with industry claims that government bureaucrats would place themselves between patients and doctors and deny needed medical procedures.

“Right now I have insurance company bureaucrats doing that all the time,” he said. “They always try to deny not just tests but even essential surgery. If I had to make a choice I’d rather deal with the government — at least they aren’t out to profit off of my illness.”

Ben Williams, 36, emerged from the same ER with his arm set in a new cast — he had a broken wrist. His greatest concern was the need for a public option.

“The opponents say that the public option would kill off the private insurance industry. I don’t buy it,” Williams said. “Right now we have Medicare, we have government insurance for the military and we have a public plan even for all the people in Congress who are against the people having a public plan. Even with these public options we still have a powerful private insurance system — too powerful if you ask me. A public option might force them to lower costs but I don’t think it will put them out of business. If it did, I’d say ‘good riddance.’”

jwojcik @ pww.org

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