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APRIL 26, 2006

Romney defends health plan to skeptical conservatives

WASHINGTON Governor Mitt Romney defended the Massachusetts healthcare plan from conservatives' criticism yesterday, saying that "there has been more fog than clarity" in discussions of the policy and that once they studied the plan more carefully, they would embrace it.

In a speech to an audience at the US Chamber of Commerce, Romney sought to portray the healthcare plan as an unlikely victory for conservatism in a heavily Democratic state.

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But some conservatives, whom Romney is wooing for a possible presidential bid in 2008, remain skeptical. The Wall Street Journal's editorial page, a bellwether of conservative opinion, continued its criticism of the legislation Monday, and one questioner at Romney's speech yesterday asked whether the Massachusetts plan might end up increasing costs rather than containing them.

"Most impressions at this point are inaccurate or partially baked," Romney told reporters.

The plan aims to make coverage nearly universal in Massachusetts by requiring everyone to obtain health insurance. Romney signed the plan into law April 12, attracting national attention.

In appealing to conservatives, Romney has stressed the Massachusetts program's dependence on the private sector, its emphasis on personal responsibility, and the role the conservative Heritage Foundation played in conceiving some parts of the plan.

Yesterday, Romney also added a populist note to his defense of the program, saying repeatedly that under the current system many "free riders" who do not have insurance end up getting free health coverage that is subsidized by unwitting taxpayers.

"The key factor that some of my libertarian friends forget is that today, everybody who doesn't have insurance is getting free coverage from government," Romney said, citing the number of uninsured people who receive free treatment at hospital emergency rooms. "And the question is, do we want people to pay what they can afford, or do we want people to be able to ride free on everybody else? And when that's recognized as the choice, most conservatives come my way."

Romney used a PowerPoint presentation to explain the bill to the breakfast crowd. Afterward, the executive vice president of the Chamber of Commerce, R. Bruce Josten, joked as Romney left the podium that at least the governor didn't have "any arrows sticking out of his back."

Katie Strong, the director of congressional and public affairs for healthcare policy at the Chamber, said the business group has "not taken a position either way" on the Massachusetts law but had "some concerns about its viability" as a model for other states.

In his speech, Romney called the Massachusetts program an "experiment the other 49 states can look at, [with] elements they can adopt."

He said that voting for the bill had been a "big swallow for my Democratic friends," since it will force "folks who have been getting healthcare for free in my state for the last multiple years . . . to purchase insurance and pay something they haven't had to pay in the past."

Joseph Antos, a healthcare policy specialist at the conservative American Enterprise Institute in Washington, said that despite Romney's efforts to portray the Massachusetts plan as a conservative victory, it might prove a tough sell for business leaders and "mainstream Republican America" should Romney decide to run for president.

"In the business community, I think they're very wary," he said. "Politically, this is not exactly hard-core conservative thinking at the moment."

Yesterday, Romney also met with Pennsylvania Senator Rick Santorum, who is facing a difficult reelection campaign this fall against Democrat Bob Casey Jr. Eric Fehrnstrom, Romney's communications director, said the talk between the two Republicans was "a courtesy meeting to talk about the senator's race and other current events."

While Romney was in Washington, House lawmakers on Beacon Hill voted overwhelmingly to overturn some of his vetoes to the state's landmark healthcare law, including the controversial $295 fee on businesses that don't offer insurance.

Romney said the fee is unnecessary and wouldn't raise that much money. The override by the predominantly Democratic House was widely expected. The House also voted to restore a portion of the law guaranteeing dental benefits to Medicaid recipients.

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