President Obama's health care reform outreach to congressional Republicans got off to a bumpy start on Monday morning, when Rep. Darrell Issa (R-Calif.) blasted a statement to reporters headlined: "First Question for President Obama: Did You Lie About Moving Forward on Malpractice Reform?"
It wasn't as brazen as Rep. Joe Wilson (R-S.C.) shouting "You lie!" while the president addressed Congress last September, but it's a sign of how difficult it will be to reach any sort of consensus.
Issa is the highest-ranking Republican on the House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform. His gripe with Obama is over tort reform -- proposed changes to the judicial system to prevent medical malpractice lawsuits from driving up health care costs -- one of the top health-care reform priorities of the GOP. Obama, in a September address to Congress, said that he directed the Department of Health and Human Services to "move forward" on some tort reform pilot projects.
"Now, finally, many in this chamber -- particularly on the Republican side of the aisle -- have long insisted that reforming our medical malpractice laws can help bring down the cost of health care," Obama said. "Now, I don't believe malpractice reform is a silver bullet, but I've talked to enough doctors to know that defensive medicine may be contributing to unnecessary costs. So I'm proposing that we move forward on a range of ideas about how to put patient safety first and let doctors focus on practicing medicine. I know that the Bush administration considered authorizing demonstration projects in individual states to test these ideas. I think it's a good idea, and I'm directing my Secretary of Health and Human Services to move forward on this initiative today."
An Issa staffer attempted to get some information from HHS about malpractice reform and was told that tort reform "is not a priority with this Administration," Issa charged.
"The first question I have for President Obama is if he still stands by his call for tort reform or was he just lying to Congress when he directed Sec. Sebelius to pursue an initiative addressing the costs of defensive medicine," Issa asked. "When HHS is telling me that malpractice reform is not a 'priority of this Administration,' I have to question the sincerity of the President's commitment to working with Congressional Republicans on a bipartisan basis. A clarification from the Administration would tell us if he is sincere in his effort for bipartisan discussions or if this is just another exercise in futility aimed to make the American people think the White House is serious about bipartisanship."
Spokespersons for the White House and HHS didn't immediately return requests for comment, but one thing at least is clear: Obama did instruct HHS to move forward on a specific tort-reform initiative, which is a major concession to the GOP and a setback for trial lawyers. We know that Obama did so because he made the instruction in public, in front of both the House and Senate and, for what it's worth, C-SPAN cameras as well.