Huntsman, Pawlenty Mulled Health Care Mandates

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The conventional wisdom among the political punditry is that 2012 Republican frontrunner Mitt Romney will be hamstrung by the health-insurance plan he helped craft as governor of Massachusetts, which included a mandate to purchase insurance. That may not be true.

In conservative circles, the health-insurance mandate has become shorthand for government overreach. But while each GOP presidential hopeful has disavowed it on the campaign trial, in recent days two of Romney’s top competitors — former Utah Governor Jon Huntsman, who hasn’t declared his candidacy, and former Minnesota Governor Tim Pawlenty, whose Iowa barnstorming tour is well underway — have faced questions about whether they expressed support for it during their tenures in office.

On Tuesday afternoon, the conservative blog VerumSerum posted a September 2007 clip in which Huntsman is asked by a reporter whether he’s comfortable with requiring every Utahn to purchase health insurance. “I’m comfortable with a requirement,” Huntsman replies. “You can call it whatever you want, but at some point we’re going to have to get serious about how we deal with this issue, and that means there will have to be a multitude of different policies that are available in the marketplace. It means that it will be incumbent upon citizens to look more at responsibility, their own responsibility in terms of health and the choices that are made. It likely will mean that we’ll be in an environment with better prices, more options, more access and availability.”

Tim Miller, Huntsman’s spokesman, said Huntsman considered a range of insurance proposals as government and ultimately backed a version that looks nothing like President Obama’s signature piece of legislation. “As Gov. Huntsman has said, he looked at a number of different options — including a mandate — assessed them good and bad and decided to put forth a free-market health care plan without a mandate,” Miller wrote in an email to TIME. “That program is now the national model for market-based health care reform and on the opposite end of the spectrum from Obamacare.” The Huffington Post recently published a story that asserted Huntsman supported a mandate. Huntsman’s camp disputed that characterization.

Huntsman isn’t the only Republican hopeful to face questions about his stance toward a mandate. As Ben Smith reported on Friday, former Minnesota Governor Tim Pawlenty said in 2006 that requiring residents to buy insurance was “a worthy goal and one that we’re intrigued by and, I think, at least open to.” Check out the audio clip, in which Pawlenty lavishes praise on Romney. Pawlenty, who like Huntsman is an outspoken foe of the federal mandate, told National Review that he twice rejected state-level proposals that included a mandate.

The health care comments could inflict greater damage on Huntsman. Amid the favorable press reports from his early forays into New Hampshire, Obama’s former Ambassador to China is trying to separate himself from the President and fend off the critics who say he is too moderate to appeal to GOP primary voters. Last week, VerumSerum, the same site that unearthed his mandate remarks, posted a web video that highlights a variety of positions Huntsman took as governor — on cap-and-trade, health-care reform and the stimulus — that are now considered apostasies within the GOP. The snippets are set to footage of a lumbering rhino (a reference to the epithet Republican In Name Only) and purportedly liberal bastions like the New York Times building.

“There is a mandate today, let’s not forget, and it’s called the emergency room,” Huntsman says in the 2007 clip. “You show up in the emergency room and you get covered. And who pays the bills? Taxpayers pay the bills. Companies pay the bills. So we’re living today in an environment, to be sure, where there already is a mandate is in place. It’s whether you want to really make the system more efficient.”