Thursday, February 16, 2012

When 'free ride' on health care became conservative -- Feb. 16, 2012 column


When Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney signed his state’s health care plan in 2006, requiring everyone to buy insurance, he bragged that the free ride was over.

“The Republican approach is to say, `You know what? Everybody should have insurance. They should pay what they can afford to pay. If they need help, we will be there to help them, but no more free ride,’” Romney told Neil Cavuto on Fox News.

Romney cast his plan as the ultimate conservative idea, but this was before Barack Obama was elected president, before Congress passed the Affordable Care Act, before the anti-government folks rattled politicians’ tea cups. In 2012, Romney’s leadership in promoting personal responsibility has made him the GOP’s piñata.

Imitation may be the sincerest form of flattery, but it also can be political death-making. Romney’s presidential campaign has suffered because President Obama’s health-care law also shuts down the free ride on health care. Obama requires most people to buy insurance by 2014 or pay a tax penalty.

Romney still tries to sell the mandate to buy insurance as a conservative idea, but Rick Santorum has surged by whacking continuously at the Massachusetts law and by linking Romney with Obama.

Damning it as the “stepchild of Obamacare,” Santorum says that requiring people to buy health insurance is nothing short of an assault on personal liberty – and there’s “no greater issue in this race than freedom.” Whoa, the freedom to freeload?

There’s a difference between campaigning and governing. While Congress and the Republican candidates bash “Obamacare” for political gain, the ranks of the uninsured continue to grow. About 50 million Americans now lack insurance. Some have lost jobs and benefits in the recession while others are working for employers who have dropped health benefits.

And so, as Mitt Romney said back in 2006, we already have socialized medicine. People who lack insurance still get sick and in car accidents and wind up in the emergency room where they get care. Taxpayers and the people with insurance foot the bills.

Romney’s and Obama’s health laws are attempts to bring people into the system to rein in costs and improve access to care.

Interestingly, none of the legal challenges to the federal law dispute the basic fact that the nation faces a crisis in health care cost and access.

Today Massachusetts has the highest level of health insurance coverage in the country, and, here’s a surprise, “Romneycare” enjoys widespread support. Almost two-thirds of state residents like the Massachusetts plan, according to a new survey for WBUR, a public radio station in Boston. The finding is consistent with previous surveys over the years.

Until 2009, Gallup polls found that large majorities of Americans believed government had a responsibility to make sure Americans had health care coverage. About half of us still believe it.

And, while most Americans hate the idea of socialized medicine, one in four Americans now get their health care through government programs -- Medicare, Medicaid, military and veterans’ benefits. They just don’t think of themselves as receiving government health care. Who can forget the protesting seniors waving signs that read “Keep Your Hands Off MY Medicare.”

One in two Americans favor repeal of the Affordable Care Act, polls tell us. At the same time, young people, now eligible to stay on their parents’ health insurance until age 26, are getting coverage as never before. The Census Bureau estimated that at least half a million people 18 to 24 have gotten coverage under the law.

All the Republican presidential candidates favor speedy repeal of Obama’s plan, if the Supreme Court doesn’t do it first. The court is expected to rule on the constitutionality of the law in June.

Santorum insists that Romney is the “worst possible person” to confront Obama on the health care issue in the fall, because he “built the largest government-run health-care system in the United States.”

Romney, who could argue he has the experience to work with Democrats as he did in Massachusetts, instead says that what was good for Massachusetts isn’t good for the whole country.

Promising “no free rides” may have been a conservative concept, but in 2012 it’s too liberal for a Republican seeking his party’s presidential nomination.

© 2012 Marsha Mercer. All rights reserved.

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