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Romney Bids to Defuse Health-Care Issue Clouding White House Run

Former Massachusetts Governor Mitt Romney
Mitt Romney, former Massachusetts governor and front-runner for the Republican nomination in some polls, included praise for U.S. president Barack Obama in a statement he issued six minutes after the president finished his nationally televised comments on bin Laden’s death. Photographer: Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images

Likely Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney sought to overcome one of his biggest political obstacles with a speech that stressed differences between a health-care plan he supported and one President Barack Obama guided into federal law.

“Our plan was a state solution to a state problem,” Romney said of the 2006 health-care measure he signed into law as governor of Massachusetts. “His is a power grab by the federal government to put in place a one-size-fits-all plan across the nation.”

Romney’s remarks at the University of Michigan’s Cardiovascular Center in Ann Arbor yesterday were designed to address political questions about legislation that made Massachusetts the first state to promise health insurance to all residents.

“What we did wasn’t perfect,” Romney said. “But overall, am I proud of the fact that we did our best for our people and we got people insured? Absolutely.”

Obama and his aides have repeatedly cited the Massachusetts law as a prototype for health-care legislation that they pushed through what was then a Democratic-controlled Congress last year.

Insurance Provision

Aspects of the federal law, dubbed “Obamacare” by Republicans seeking to repeal it, are similar to the Massachusetts measure, including the provision that adults not covered by their employers or a government program must buy insurance or face a financial penalty.

Republicans have focused much of their criticism of the overall law on that mandate, which Romney didn’t distance himself from in his speech. The mandate’s constitutionality has been challenged in court cases seeking to have the law overturned.

Speaking to about 100 medical personnel and supporters in an auditorium, Romney, 64, criticized the federal law for creating a “massive” bureaucracy. He described the Massachusetts law as a “more modest proposal” that didn’t result in more bureaucracy.

He used a PowerPoint presentation to present his arguments and detail his national health-care proposals during a roughly 40-minute appearance.

Tax Deduction

Romney called for giving states the responsibility and resources to care for the poor, uninsured and chronically ill, as well as a tax deduction to those who buy their own health insurance and a reduction in the influence of lawsuits on medical care and costs.

“I’d like to make health care work more like a market and less like a government agency,” he said.

He backed repeal of the federal law, an effort that passed the Republican-controlled House in January and has languished in the Democratic-controlled Senate.

Romney also made clear he had no plans to renounce the Massachusetts measure.

“I respect the views of those who think that we took the wrong course,” he said. “I also recognize that a lot of pundits around the nation are saying that I should just stand up and say this whole thing was a mistake, that it was a bone-headed idea and I should just admit it.”

‘Wouldn’t Be Honest’

Said Romney: “There’s only one problem with that: It wouldn’t be honest. I, in fact, did what I believe was right for the people of my state.”

Romney, who fell short in a 2008 presidential bid, has been among the top tier of candidates in polls of 2012 potential Republican candidates. His role in the passage of the Massachusetts health-care law, though, looms as a stumbling block for him among some Republican activists, including members of Tea Party groups.

“It’s an incredibly big deal,” said Ryan Rhodes, a leader of the Iowa Tea Party, based in the state that holds the first contest in the nomination process. “How do you run against Obamacare when he based that on your plan in Massachusetts?”

Democrats have lauded the Massachusetts law and made a point of noting Romney’s involvement in its passage.

“I agree with Mitt Romney, who recently said he’s proud of what he accomplished on health care in Massachusetts and supports giving states the power to determine their own health-care solutions,” Obama told the nation’s governors Feb. 28.

‘Running Away’

“Governor Romney seems to be running away from some of the goals” of the law he signed in Massachusetts, White House spokesman Jay Carney told reporters yesterday. He also said “there are a lot of similarities” between the Obama health-care law and the one in Massachusetts.

Before the speech, Michigan Democratic Party Chairman Mark Brewer criticized Romney for trying to “distance himself” from the 2006 legislation. “He will say and do anything to get elected president,” Brewer said.

Anything short of an apology and an admission of error from Romney for his involvement in the Massachusetts legislation may not be enough to satisfy some Republican activists.

“He’s going to have to unequivocally say that we need to roll this back and that we don’t need the government in our health care,” said Rhodes, the Iowa Tea Party leader. “It ranks right up there because it’s part of our debt and deficit issue.”

David Rohde, a political science professor at Duke University in Durham, North Carolina, said concerns about Romney among conservatives run deeper than health care.

‘General Concern’

“The concerns of conservatives in the party about the health-care issue is a manifestation of the general concern about Romney, an uncertainty about whether he’s really one of them,” said Rohde.

Before his 2003-2007 term as governor of Massachusetts, Romney co-founded the Boston-based private-equity firm Bain Capital LLC and helped turn the 2002 Winter Olympics in Salt Lake City, Utah, into a financial success. He touts those credentials as the U.S. economy struggles to rebound from the worst downturn since the Great Depression.

As he left the auditorium in Michigan yesterday, Romney took no questions from reporters. Earlier, he was asked by an audience member what would keep states from a race to the bottom on the quality and affordability of health care.

“The people of that state are going to vote out of office the people who aren’t doing a good job,” he said.

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