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White House used Mitt Romney health-care law as blueprint for federal law

Newly obtained White House records provide details on how senior Obama administration officials used Mitt Romney’s landmark health-care law as a model for the federal law now derided by the GOP as “Obamacare.”  NBC News' Michael Isikoff reports.
/ Source: NBC News

Newly obtained White House records provide fresh details on how senior Obama administration officials used Mitt Romney’s landmark health-care law in Massachusetts as a model for the new federal law, including recruiting some of Romney’s own health care advisers and experts to help craft the act now derided by Republicans as “Obamacare.” 

The records, gleaned from White House visitor logs reviewed by NBC News, show that senior White House officials had a dozen meetings in 2009 with three health-care advisers and experts who helped shape the health care reform law signed by Romney in 2006, when the Republican presidential candidate was governor of Massachusetts. One of those meetings, on July 20, 2009, was in the Oval Office and presided over by President Barack Obama, the records show. 

“The White House wanted to lean a lot on what we’d done in Massachusetts,” said Jon Gruber, an MIT economist who advised the Romney administration on health care and who attended five meetings at the Obama White House in 2009, including the meeting with the president. “They really wanted to know how we can take that same approach we used in Massachusetts and turn that into a national model.”

Romney has forcefully defended the Massachusetts law he signed, but says he is adamantly against a “one-size-fits-all national health-care system” imposed on all 50 states. “I will repeal Obamacare,” he has said. “And on day one of my administration, I will grant a waiver from Obamacare to all 50 states.”

Asked about about the White House records Tuesday at a press conference announcing New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie's endorsement, Romney said the people involved in the White House meetings were "consultants," not "aides." He added that "one person (Obama) should have talked to was me."

The response echoed comments that Romney made last April after Obama suggested the White House had borrowed from his law in Massachusetts.

“He does me the great favor of saying that I was the inspiration of his plan,” Romney said of Obama. “If that’s the case, why didn’t you call me? …Why didn’t you ask what was wrong? Why didn’t you ask if this was an experiment, what worked and what didn’t. … I would have told him, ‘What you’re doing, Mr. President, is going to bankrupt us.’”

The White House visitor logs suggest that, if Obama officials didn’t talk directly with Romney, senior presidential aides did consult with others — like Gruber — who played important roles in helping to craft and implement the Massachusetts law.

In addition to Obama himself, the meetings attended by Gruber were presided over by the president’s chief economic adviser, Lawrence Summers, then budget director Peter Orzag and Nancy-Ann DeParle, the president’s chief adviser on health care, the records show. Gruber was also given a $380,000 contract by the Obama administration in 2009 to work with Congress on drafting a new federal law based on the Massachusetts law, records show.

Another Romney administration adviser consulted by the White House was Jon Kingsdale, a health-care expert who was appointed in 2006 by one of Romney’s Cabinet secretaries, Thomas Trimarco, to serve as executive director of the Commonwealth Health Insurance Connector Authority — the state agency charged with implementing the new Massachusetts health-care law.

Who met with whom
The White House records show Kingsdale attended three White House meetings on health care in 2009. Another expert who attended four White House meetings on health care was John McDonough, who also had played a leading role in shaping the law signed by Romney. As the head of a health-care advocacy group in Massachusetts, McDonough was named by Romney aides as a “stakeholder” to represent consumer interests on the health-care law. McDonough later shared an “innovator in health award” with Romney and 11 others — including several top lawmakers and business leaders — given by NEHI, a leading New England health-care research group, “for their collaborative efforts in achieving Massachusetts health reform.”

The health-care reform law in Massachusetts was seen as a national breakthrough when Romney signed it an elaborate ceremony — complete with a fife and drum band — at Boston’s historic Faneuil Hall on April 12, 2006. It was attended by an array of prominent political figures in the state, including the late Sen. Ted Kennedy, a longtime champion of health-care reform.

Kennedy warmly praised Romney at the event, saying, “You’ve led the way over the long and winding path to this moment.”

Romney himself touted the historic significance of the act. “Massachusetts once again is taking a giant leap forward,” he said at the signing ceremony. 

The key features of the new law were an individual mandate, which required state residents to purchase health insurance or face a tax penalty — and the creation of a state agency to help the uninsured to purchase private health insurance plans at reasonable costs. It was touted by Romney at the event as a way of “expanding coverage to all our citizens.”

Romney has since emphasized differences between his law in Massachusetts and "Obamacare," saying the state law didn’t require any increase in taxes. But the extent to which Romney’s 2006 health-care law served as a blueprint for Obama’s health care plan has been a recurring issue in the GOP presidential contest. Obama aides have fueled the controversy. Romney “did some interesting things there on health care,” David Axelrod, the president’s political adviser, said in an interview earlier this year. “We got some good ideas from him.”

On Monday, Texas Gov. Rick Perry’s campaign unleashed a blistering attack ad — called “Romney’s Remedy” — that accused the former Massachusetts governor of running away from his record on health care. “Even the richest man can’t buy back his past,” reads a tag line on the ad. It cited a line that Romney had deleted this year from the paperback edition of his book, “No Apology: The CASE for American Greatness,” discussing the Massachusetts law which read: “We can accomplish the same thing for everyone in the country.”

“When it comes to government-mandated health care, there is no difference between Mitt Romney and President Obama,” Perry spokesman, Mark Miner, said in a press release accompanying the ad.

Romney’s aides shot back, accusing Perry of distorting his record on health care and taking quotes out of context. “Rick Perry is a desperate candidate who will say and do anything to prop up his sinking campaign,” said Gail Gitcho, Romney’s communications director.

The role of Gruber could complicate the Romney campaign’s efforts to address the issue. An economist who specializes in health-care issues, he was hired by the Romney’s administration as a consultant and asked to run computer models on the costs of various approaches to extending health-care coverage. He told NBC News he attended one meeting with Romney in which the then governor forcefully insisted on including a controversial provision that some of his political advisers were wary about: the “individual mandate” that would require everybody in the state to purchase health insurance or face a tax penalty.

The same provision has since become the most contentious feature of Obama’s Affordable Care Act.

“This was a big decision to be made and Governor Romney clearly stated that he believed without an individual mandate healthy people could just free ride on the system,” Gruber said of Romney’s decision.

Connection played down
Romney aides have recently tried to suggest that Gruber was not a true adviser to Romney and did not play a big role in shaping the law. But Gruber was personally recognized by Romney for his role when he signed the health-care bill into law and was later appointed by Romney as a board member to the Connector Authority. (He also was given a photograph of the signing ceremony personally signed by Romney that read: “Jonathan, with deep appreciation and congratulations. A Triumph! Mitt Romney.")    

Gruber now says he is “proud” of Romney for “sticking up for what he did in Massachusetts” but is “disappointed” about his current efforts to make distinctions between the state law and the Affordable Care Act.

(He also noted that the Massachusetts law didn’t require any increase in taxes only because it received federal health-care funds that defrayed the costs of the new law.)  

Romney is “the father of health-care reform,” said Gruber. “I think he is the single person most responsible for health care reform in the United States. … I’m not trying to make a political position or a political statement, I honestly feel that way. If Mitt Romney had not stood up for this reform in Massachusetts … I don’t think it would have happened nationally. So I think he really is the guy with whom it all starts.”