Mitt Romney’s campaign is playing a delicate game on health care, increasingly suggesting that Romney’s Massachusetts health care law proves he’ll protect Americans with pre-existing conditions. The only problem: Romney has promised conservatives he’ll keep his Massachusetts reforms far, far, away from everyone else.
Twice in the last 24 hours, Romney press secretary Andrea Saul noted that Joe Soptic, a man featured in a Democratic attack ad suggesting his wife’s cancer went undiagnosed because he lost his insurance, would have been able to purchase coverage under Romney’s Massachusetts law.
“To that point, if people had been in Massachusetts, under Gov. Romney’s health care plan, they would have had health care,” Saul said Tuesday. On Wednesday, she repeated the point: “If people had been in Massachusetts under Gov. Romney’s health care plan they would’ve had health care. There a lot of people losing their jobs and losing their health care in President Obama’s economy, and that is why Gov. Romney is running: to get people back to work.”
What Saul didn’t mention is that Romney’s Massachusetts law — which does provide subsidized insurance for laid-off workers who lose their coverage — has no bearing on Romney’s current policy proposals. In order to win conservatives over, Romney pledged from the beginning of his primary campaign that while he would not apologize for his state reforms, he would never impose them on the nation.
Nor has he suggested any national policy to encourage other states to follow Massachusetts’s lead if Republicans succeed in repealing the Affordable Care Act. The issue is extremely sensitive on the right because he ACA is explicitly modeled after Romney’s Massachusetts reforms. Not surprisingly, anti-Obamacare pundits are already flipping out over Saul’s comments.
But Saul’s remarks may not have been as off-message as they sound. Recently, Romney hinted that his work in Massachusetts, a taboo topic in the primaries, shows he understands the plight of those with pre-existing conditions. In Iowa Wednesday, he suggested in a speech that his Massachusetts record would help him implement nationwide reforms:
We’ve got to do reforms in health care and I have some experience doing that as you know. And I know how to make a better setting than the one we have in health care. I want to make sure that those with pre-existing conditions are able to get insurance and that people don’t have to worry about getting dropped from their insurance coverage and that health care is available to all people.
But Romney aides have repeatedly said he would not ban insurance companies from blocking patients with pre-existing coverage. What little of Romney’s plan he’s released calls for preventing insurance companies from dropping people so long as they maintain “continuous coverage.”
This is easier said than done. For one thing, laws like this already exist: If a person loses his job, he can maintain insurance coverage through COBRA, but the premiums can quickly become prohibitively expensive — especially without a steady income.
There’s another problem: What do you do if you have a pre-existing coverage and can’t obtain insurance in the first place? What if you’re, say, a college grad with a chronic disability who wants to start a business? Or a recently divorced homemaker no longer on her spouse’s coverage?
These kinds of questions have tripped up Romney throughout the campaign. In March, Jay Leno prodded Romney about why friends of his who can’t obtain insurance at their auto business shouldn’t get a helping hand. Caught off guard, Romney seemed to promise more than he could deliver, saying that “We’ll look at a circumstance where someone is ill and hasn’t been insured so far.” Afterward, the campaign clarified that Romney still only supported a pre-existing condition ban for people who maintain “continuous coverage.”
The issue flared up in June ahead of the Supreme Court’s health care ruling, when the Romney campaign again confirmed that he would not keep in place the ACA’s provisions regarding pre-existing conditions if the law were overturned. Instead, they promised to lessen the problem with high-risk pools for sick individuals, which don’t eliminate high premiums or insurance company discrimination. This drew a wave of attacks from the Obama campaign, but was quickly overshadowed by the Supreme Court’s decision to uphold the core of the ACA.
By trying to reclaim Romney’s health care law as part of his political resume, however, Romney is now inviting the issue back into the campaign. If he wants Americans to elect him based on his Massachusetts reforms, it’s only logical to ask him why he doesn’t want them for everyone.
Benjy Sarlin is a reporter for Talking Points Memo and co-writes the campaign blog, TPM2012. He previously reported for The Daily Beast/Newsweek as their Washington Correspondent and covered local politics for the New York Sun.