By Noam N. Levey, Los Angeles Times
MassachusettsÂ Gov. Mitt Romney was all smiles in 2006 as he marched into historic Faneuil Hall behind a fife and drum corps and ascended a giant stage festooned with a banner that proclaimed “MakingÂ History in Healthcare.”
Romney was about to sign a law making his state the first in the nation to effectively guarantee universal health coverage, a landmark the governor would then call “an achievement” that “comes once in a generation.”
Five years later, that achievement is still being celebrated here by doctors, hospitals, business leaders and community advocates who credit the law with ensuring that fewer than 2% of the state’s residents are uninsured, compared with more than 15% nationally.
Yet the Massachusetts milestone has emerged as perhaps Romney’s biggest obstacle to securing the Republican nomination for president in 2012.
With Republican voters still enraged at the new national healthcare law, conservatives regularly criticize the former governor for designing a measure that became a template for the overhaulÂ President Obama signed last year. On Thursday, Romney is to deliver a major speech in Michigan that his campaign said would outline a program to “repeal and replace” Obama’s plan, the latest in Romney’s efforts to distance himself from the federal law.
“It is quite an irony,” said Michael Widmer, president of the Massachusetts Taxpayers Foundation, one of the state’s leading business advocates. “You will find nearly universal pride in the state about these reforms and a salute to Romney for his contribution…. He had a pivotal role in health reform, but he is clearly taking less credit than he deserves.”
Romney is instead laboring to explain that he never intended the federal government to do what Massachusetts did.
“States are where healthcare programs for the uninsured should be crafted,” he told New HampshireÂ Republicansrecently.
He has also embraced traditional GOP prescriptions such as limits to medical malpractice suits, loosening regulations on private insurance companies and expanding tax benefits for privately purchased insurance.
Though Romney calls the Obama program “a major departure from what we had crafted,” health policy experts, including many who worked on either the Massachusetts plan or the national law, see far more similarities than differences.
“Massachusetts was the model for the federal Affordable Care Act…. It is the cornerstone of the healthcare overhaul,” said John McDonough, a former Democratic state lawmaker and consumer advocate who worked on the state law and subsequently helped write the federal law for the Senate health committee in Washington.
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