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MELISSA BLOCK, host:

From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Melissa Block.

ROBERT SIEGEL, host:

And I'm Robert Siegel.

First this hour, some striking results from a survey of how doctors view the health care overhaul. At a time when support for the so-called public option is dwindling, a large majority of doctors say there should be a public option.

NPR's Joseph Shapiro explains.

JOSEPH SHAPIRO: Two researchers from Mount Sinai School of Medicine in New York conducted a random survey by mail and by phone of more than 2,100 doctors. They collected the results from June right up to early September. Dr. Salomeh Keyhani says what she found shows that the majority of physicians support a public option.

Dr. SALOMEH KEYHANI (Mount Sinai School of Medicine, New York): Nearly three-quarters of physicians supported some form of a public option, either alone or in combination with private insurance option.

SHAPIRO: Most doctors - 63 percent - say they favor giving patients a choice that would include both public and private insurance. That's the position of President Obama and of many congressional Democrats. In addition, another 10 percent of doctors say they favor a public option only. They'd like to see a single-payer health care system. The two groups together add up to 73 percent.

When the American public is polled, anywhere from 50 to 70 percent favor a public option. So that means when compared to their patients, doctors are bigger supporters of a public option.

Dr. ALEX FEDERMAN (Mount Sinai School of Medicine, New York): We even saw that support being the same whether physicians lived in rural areas or metropolitan areas.

SHAPIRO: Dr. Alex Federman, he's also an internist and researcher at Mount Sinai, is the study's co-author.

Dr. FEDERMAN: Whether they lived in southern regions of the United States or traditionally liberal parts of the country.

Dr. KEYHANI: We found that physicians, regardless, whether they were salaried or they were practice owners, regardless of whether they were specialists or primary care providers, regardless of where they lived, the support for the public option was broad and widespread.

SHAPIRO: Keyhani says doctors already have experience with government-run health care, with Medicare. And she says the survey shows, overall, they like it.

Dr. KEYHANI: We've heard a lot about how the government is standing in between patients and their physician, and what we can see is that physicians support Medicare. So I think physicians have sort of signaled that a public option that's similar in design to Medicare would be a good way of ensuring patients get the care that they need.

SHAPIRO: The survey was published online today by the New England Journal of Medicine and it was funded by the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, a health care research organization that favors health reform. The survey even found widespread support for a public option among doctors who are members of the American Medical Association, a group that's opposed to it. The AMA fears a public option eventually could lead to government putting more limits on doctors' fees.

Keyhani and Federman belong to another smaller group, the National Physicians Alliance. It supports a public option. And Keyhani has spoken publicly about her own support for a public option. Dr. James Rohack is president of the AMA. He says it's hard to know for sure what doctors mean when they speak about a public option.

Dr. JAMES ROHACK (President, American Medical Association): Because when I say public option or you say public option, it means different things to different people. It's kind of like the Rorschach ink blot test - when you look at it, to some people it means one thing, to other people it means the other thing.

SHAPIRO: The AMA's own position on a health overhaul has at times been hard to pinpoint. In July it praised the bill that came out of the House of Representatives. That bill included a public option, but the AMA made it clear that what it really liked was that it eliminated cuts in doctors' fees from Medicare.

Dr. ROHACK: And so I think that's why we have to be very clear about what does the AMA articulate for. It's to make sure that everyone has coverage that's affordable, that's portable and that is quality. That is, it covers the things you need to cover because you've got a medical condition or developed a medical illness.

SHAPIRO: Politicians in Washington turn to the AMA for support and guidance, even though fewer than a third of doctors belong to the lobbying group.

Joseph Shapiro, NPR News.

SIEGEL: And we should note that the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation which funded the doctors' survey also supports NPR.

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