Mitt Romney, please take note. Your health care legacy is under attack, just like Barack Obama’s.
The last time Romney commanded the national spotlight, he was dining on frog legs and humiliation, as President-elect Donald Trump made a public spectacle of the 2012 GOP nominee’s quest to become his secretary of state. Yet a more flattering picture of Romney still exists in the state he governed for one term. The official portrait of Romney hanging in the Massachusetts State House shows him sitting on a desk that holds a picture of his wife — and a folder symbolizing the first-in-the-nation health care law, signed by Romney in April 2006.
Romneycare, as it came to be known, provided the conceptual foundation for Obamacare. And President Trump’s commitment to repealing President Obama’s signature accomplishment — the Affordable Care Act — also puts Romney’s signature accomplishment at great risk.
Governor Charlie Baker is warning that the Republican plan to repeal the ACA would reduce federal funding to Massachusetts by as much as $1.1 billion to $1.9 billion. Returning to Romneycare won’t be easy, since it relied on the same federal reimbursement formula. “The state would have to come up with a lot more money to make this work,” said Brian Rosman, policy director for the advocacy group, Health Care For All. “Our state budget is already under substantial stress. The Republican health proposal would add lots more.”
As governor, Romney promoted the individual mandate, requiring people to get insurance, as “the ultimate conservative idea, which is that people have responsibility for their own care and they don’t look to government to take care of them if they can afford to take care of themselves.” The health care law was a great bipartisan achievement for Massachusetts. When Romney signed it at a joyful Faneuil Hall ceremony, Senator Ted Kennedy and the Democratic leaders of the Legislature stood behind him.
Once Romney started running for president, however, he learned that conservatives hated the measure. Romney being Romney, that led to much ambivalence. Finally, in 2012, he decided to own the Massachusetts law, telling an audience in Michigan, “A lot of pundits around the nation are saying that I should just stand up and say this whole thing was a mistake. . . . But there’s only one problem with that: It wouldn’t be honest. I, in fact, did what I believed was right for the people of my state.” But he also promised to repeal the ACA. With Paul Ryan, the current speaker of the House, as his running mate, Romney put forth a familiar-sounding plan. Like the current proposal the House is supposed to take up, it eliminated the individual mandate, gave states block grants for Medicaid, and pushed people to buy their own insurance instead of relying on employer’s coverage.
But Romney still spoke up for the concept of universal health insurance, saying, “There’s a recognition in this country that we are a grand and generous people. The idea that we would ever say to people, ‘tough luck, you’re poor, you’re not going to have health care,’ that’s just not American. We’re going to care for one another.”
In March 2016, Romney gave a speech that called out Trump as a phony, but backed some Trump policies, including the call to repeal and replace Obamacare. “But his prescriptions to do these things are flimsy at best. At the last debate, all he could remember about his health care plan was to remove insurance boundaries between states,” said Romney.
Not much has changed. Trump recently proclaimed health care as complicated, and signed onto a plan that does what Romney said the country would never do — say “tough luck” to millions of Americans who will be cut from health insurance. If that happens, the portrait of Romney, the health care reformer, turns into one of a governor willing to watch the disassembling of his own greatest accomplishment.