American Medical Association leaders are pushing Congress to protect the rights of managed-care patients, despite criticism that the cost would be huge.

Dr. Thomas Reardon, chairman of the 290,000-member AMA, told a news conference Monday that critics of a bill backed by the Clinton administration have exaggerated the price tag."It would be just pennies per patient per month," Reardon said. He also scoffed at the notion that the measure would trigger an explosion of lawsuits.

His comments came as doctors from around the country gathered for the group's annual meeting.