Governor Mitt Romney signs the Massachusetts health reform bill as Ted Kennedy looks on.
In an Op-Ed about his nascent reform plan that appeared in the Boston Globe in November 2004, Governor Romney proposed applying "carrots and sticks" to persons who could afford private health insurance but had chosen not to purchase it. At that point, he had not yet committed to the individual health insurance mandate that made his reforms possible but later became a political liability during his Presidential campaigns. According to New Yorker columnist Ryan Lizza:
Romney and his aides had a lengthy debate about the merits of the mandate, which evolved into a broader philosophical discussion. Personal responsibility was important, some aides argued, but what about the libertarian view that the government had no business requiring people to buy something? It was one thing to ask drivers to buy car insurance. Owning a car is a choice. But the health-insurance mandate demanded the purchase of a product just for being alive.
Once he made the decision to incorporate the individual mandate into his reform plan, Governor Romney found an unlikely ally in Senator Ted Kennedy, whom he had tried unsuccessfully to unseat in 1994. Together, Romney and Kennedy approached the George W. Bush Administration and reached an agreement to redirect a multi-million dollar fund for Massachusetts hospitals to provide subsidized health insurance for lower income workers. Romney also alternately courted and cajoled the Democratic leaders of the Massachusetts legislature, whose support was essential to passing his plan.
Health reform in Massachusetts has been judged a mixed success. On one hand, the percentage of state residents who were uninsured fell from 6.4% in 2006 to 1.9% in 2010, as the national average rose from 15.2% to 16.3%. However, Romney's hope that insurance expansion would help control costs has not been fulfilled, as the percentage of the state budget spent on health services has risen from 29 to 43 percent.
Compared to the policy environment that confronted President Barack Obama in passing the Affordable Care Act, seminar participants identified some key advantages for Romney: Massachusetts's already low uninsurance rate provided a "fertile environment" for reform, and he could focus his attention on health care without having to simultaneously manage financial crises and war. Although Romney "had little choice as governor about grappling with health care," wrote Martha Bebinger in Health Affairs, "for the most part he embraced the issue. Aides say Romney was enticed by the challenge of solving a complex problem, one that had eluded politicians for decades." How critical do you think Romney's public embrace of health reform was to the law's eventual passage? Was it as important, for example, as LBJ's advocacy for Medicare?
- Kenny Lin, MD
Director, Robert L. Phillips, Jr. Health Policy Fellowship
Department of Family Medicine
Georgetown University School of Medicine