Politics & Government

Romney unveils national healthcare plan

WASHINGTON — Presidential candidate Mitt Romney on Friday will propose doing for the country what he did as governor of Massachusetts — helping the uninsured get health insurance — while also working to curb soaring health care costs even for those with coverage.

``We're going to make health insurance affordable. We're going to get on track to have every citizen insured. And we're going to reduce the rate of growth in health care spending,'' Romney said in an exclusive interview with McClatchy Newspapers previewing the proposal that he'll unveil Friday in a speech to the Florida Medical Association.

With it, he hopes to capitalize on a signature accomplishment as governor and play it to his advantage in his race for the Republican presidential nomination. Neither of his top rivals — former New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani or former Tennessee Sen. Fred Thompson — can boast of similar success on health care.

He also wants to stake a claim on a domestic issue raised far more frequently by Democratic voters and embraced more enthusiastically by Democratic candidates back to Harry Truman.

``I don't think health care can be left to the Democrats,'' Romney said, stressing that his party should not cede domestic issues to the Democrats. ``The Republican Party would be making a tremendous mistake thinking health care, education or the environment are Democratic issues.''

He lambasted Democratic health care proposals as ``knee-jerk, single-payer'' policies run by the federal government. He said Republicans should fight back with ``free market" proposals.

His own plan is a blend of tax incentives, creative financing to help the uninsured without raising taxes or federal spending, and a state-based system that would depend on governors to fix the country's health-care problems.

Romney insisted his plan would eventually help everyone get insurance. But he will not propose requiring everyone in the country to get insurance — as he did in Massachusetts.

``We'll get all the way there, but it's not through a mandate,'' he said. ``If some states were going to drag their heels, I'm not going to have the federal government step in.''

To help control costs, Romney would allow all Americans to deduct from their taxable income all of their health-care costs — including premiums and most out-of-pocket spending. Now, only people with a lot of expenses can deduct the cost from their taxable income.

That, said Romney, would provide a tax incentive to buy high-deductible, low- premium health-care plans. And that, he said, would lead people to spend less and make better, cheaper choices in buying health care. Overall spending on health care would drop by 6.2 percent, he estimated.

``You get better behavior in health care,'' he said.

To help the uninsured, Romney would provide a package aimed at helping some people into existing government programs, driving down the costs of private health insurance and subsidies.

Romney aides broke the uninsured into three groups:

_About 15 million already eligible for government coverage under programs such as Medicaid or the SCHIP program.

His plan would make it easier for states to cover those people, in part by turning Medicaid into a block grant with federal regulations and restrictions removed;

_12 million low-income people.

His proposal would help them buy privately purchased insurance by diverting up to $35 billion a year now spent by state and federal governments to pay emergency room bills for the uninsured;

_18 million middle-income people who for various reasons choose not to buy insurance.

Romney would help lower private health-care premiums by working with states to cut regulations. Giving them a tax break on the cost of their premiums would draw as many as 6 million into buying insurance at a cost to the Treasury of about $6 billion a year, his aides estimated.