Cover Story

The many Mitts

"The many Mitts" Continued...

Issue: "Focus on Mitt Romney," July 16, 2011

But other employers want to offer benefits: They struggle to pay the costs. Stergios of Pioneer Institute says the plan doesn't allow small businesses to negotiate better rates, and has been "wholly unresponsive to small business." Another problem: If employers offer insurance but don't comply with additional mandates, they could face substantial fines.

On a recent weekday morning, Bill Fields battled Boston traffic to assist a small business facing $35,000 in healthcare-related fines. Fields is director of Health Plan Solutions, a Massachusetts-based group that helps individuals and employers navigate the healthcare law. He says that's a complicated task, especially for employers who can't afford a human resources department: "If you try to read the regulations, your eyes go crossed."

The client that Fields is meeting today offers insurance to employees, but state auditors say the business didn't meet all the state regulations. (Requirements include paying a state-mandated percentage of premiums and filing reports.) Fields thinks he can help the business owner avoid the fines, but he says others end up paying. In one case, a small eatery that cleared less than $30,000 during the year faced $30,000 in fines, he says: "What they've done with small business is unconscionable."

Hunt, the CPA and congressman from Sandwich, Mass., says some of his clients have faced similar trouble. Others have struggled to conserve cash and pay insurance costs themselves. In a struggling economy dependent on small business for jobs, Hurst says the challenge is substantial: "I would argue that healthcare has been the single biggest deterrent for small business job growth in this recovery."

Analysts debate how much Romney's plan affected healthcare costs and whether he's responsible for changes the legislature made after he signed the bill. Michael Franc of Heritage says his group still thinks the original ideas were good, but says problems flowed from changes added later. Other conservatives who once spoke positively of Romney's plan-including Sen. Jim DeMint, R-S.C., and GOP presidential candidates Tim Pawlenty and Newt Gingrich-have tempered or withdrawn their approval in the wake of Obama's unpopular federal healthcare law.

Tuerck of Beacon Hill thinks Romney is culpable for the bill he started: "He had to know that the legislature was going to have its way with this issue." And Tuerck shares the concern of other conservatives over the healthcare mandate: "If you start telling people to buy one thing, you can start telling them to buy something else."

While Romney has said his plan "wasn't perfect," he hasn't said it was a mistake. Indeed, the former governor argues that states should experiment with local solutions to local problems. He says instituting such plans on a federal level would be a mistake. He promises to repeal Obama's healthcare law. (He also says he would press for tax breaks for individuals buying insurance and would push medical malpractice reform to reduce costs.)

Yet it may be difficult for the governor to distinguish his plan from Obama's, especially since administration officials have said they admired Romney's work. The Obama plan does include central features of Romney's effort, including a healthcare exchange and an individual mandate. Tuerck says he worries that the similarities would hurt Romney in a general election: "It takes a major debating point off the table. . . . Romneycare is a poison pill for the presidency."

Hunt, the Massachusetts congressman, understands concerns over Romney's healthcare plan, but believes he's still the most qualified candidate for the GOP nomination. He hopes that Romney can overcome the healthcare hurdle, even if it remains a substantial roadblock to the nomination.

Romney faces other hurdles, but he may find them lower than he did during his last run for the presidency. The once pro-abortion governor says he became pro-life while studying the issue of embryonic stem-cell research in Massachusetts. Critics accused him of flip-flopping on the issue during the last election, but his GOP opponents haven't pressed the issue this time.

During the first televised debate for GOP presidential candidates in New Hampshire in June, the CNN moderator asked Romney's fellow Republicans whether they questioned his position on abortion or thought the case was closed. The candidates remained silent until Herman Cain muttered: "Case closed." The case could re-open again over Romney's refusal to sign a pro-life group's pledge (see sidebar).

Mineau from Massachusetts Family Institute said Romney and his staff were helpful on issues related to life and marriage while he was governor. While some critics say Romney could have done more to block gay marriage in the state, Mineau says: "Nobody did more to fight same-sex marriage than Gov. Romney." (A group of eight Massachusetts social conservatives signed a letter supporting Romney's record in 2007.)

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