Newt’s Romney-esque Problem on Health Care

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Republican presidential hopeful Newt Gingrich is quickly developing a serious health reform problem and his defense sounds just like Mitt Romney’s.

As I reported yesterday, Gingrich seemed to be backing away from his support of Paul Ryan’s 2012 budget, which includes dramatic proposals to remake government health care entitlements, saying he couldn’t support conservatives “imposing radical change” on Medicare. Ryan’s people shot back with a statement last night: “Far from claims of radicalism, the gradual, common-sense Medicare reforms ensure that no senior will be forced to reorganize their lives because of government’s mistakes,” wrote Ryan spokesman Conor Sweeney in an e-mail. “The most ‘radical’ course of action on Medicare is to continue clinging to the unsustainable status quo. Serious leaders owe seniors specific solutions to avert Medicare’s looming collapse.”

Gingrich spokesman Rick Tyler explained to me this morning that Gingrich remains a supporter of the Ryan plan but that he’s never said the plan is perfect. “As Paul Ryan’s plan is structured now it would force people to move from one system to another – a mandate that the Speaker does not agree with,” Tyler said, adding that if the plan was delivered to a President Gingrich in its current form, he’d sign it into law.

So… Gingrich is against mandates of any kind, right? Wrong. I was even more confused when I spotted this Wall Street Journal headline this morning: “Gingrich on Health Care: Yes on Individual Mandate, No on GOP Medicare Overhaul.” In an interview with the paper, Gingrich reiterated his past support for individual health insurance mandates. “All of us have a responsibility to help pay for health care,” he said.

This prompted a second call to Tyler, who explained: “The Speaker said: ‘People should have a responsibility to pay for their health care.’ There are a number of ways to solve that. But he didn’t mean a federal mandate. He wouldn’t object to mandates at the state level – but it should be up to the state. It could be a mandate, it could be a lot of things.”

This sounds an awful lot like the argument Romney tried to stake out in Ann Arbor last week, as he tried to distance his own health care policy positions from those of President Obama. Romney defended the plan he put in place as governor of Massachusetts — and his opposition to ObamaCare — by reiterating his support for state mandates and his opposition to a federal one. Tyler, though, objected to the comparison. “You could never characterize this as supporting what Romney did in Massachusetts,” he said. “Forty percent of health care costs in Massachusetts are paid for by the government. Newt supports a private sector-based solution.”