Hickenlooper: ‘individual mandate’ not essential for health care reform

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DENVER — Colorado Gov. John Hickenlooper, a Democrat, came awfully close to expressing opposition to the controversial individual mandate that all Americans buy health insurance — but stopped just short of doing so in a radio interview that aired Wednesday.

The individual mandate portion of the Affordable Care Act passed by Congress in 2010 now hangs in the balance at the Supreme Court, where a decision is likely next month that could repeal the mandate or possibly overturn the entire landmark law.

In a long interview with Ryan Warner of Colorado Public Radio, Hickenlooper said he wouldn’t push for a state-level health care mandate like that passed by then-Gov. Mitt Romney in Massachusetts.

“I’m not sure a mandate is the right word for it,” Hickenlooper said. “But I think we have said from the beginning we want to find ways to expand coverage to more people, to improve outcomes and to control costs.”

Supporters of the individual mandate argue that it’s not only Constitutional, but necessary to get more buyers into the health care market in order to drive costs down.

“You’ve got to get people in the pool, but there are a lot of different ways to do that,” Hickenlooper said.

Colorado Republicans pounced on the statement, firing off a press release titled: “Hickenlooper opposes Obama’s individual mandate”, contrasting what they interpret as the governor’s opposition to the mandate with Colorado’s trio of Democratic congressional candidates who support it.

“Joe Miklosi, Ed Perlmutter and Sal Pace have all turned their backs on the people of Colorado by supporting the federal government taking over health care,” said state GOP Chairman Ryan Call. “Now, even Democratic Gov. John Hickenlooper disagrees with their extreme support for the individual mandate that will hurt Colorado’s families and job creators.”

But did Hickenlooper actually go that far?

According to political analyst Eric Sondermann, Hickenlooper’s stance is a sign of the times — and the Democratic governor’s characteristic cutting against the political grain.

“My how times change,” Sondermann told FOX31 Denver. “The view articulated by Gov. Hickenlooper on Colorado Public Radio mimics rather closely that of then-candidate Barack Obama circa 2008 when he took exception to Hillary Clinton’s proposed mandate.  But that was then and this is now.

“The mandate has become holy grail among activist Democrats.  Those who oppose Obamacare, and the individual mandate as it central feature, will applaud Hickenlooper’s well-known independence.  But many in the Governor’s Democratic base will be concerned that these comments dance awfully close to what they regard as the line of heresy.”

The governor’s office sent FOX31 Denver a statement Wednesday night to clarify that Hickenlooper is not opposed to the individual mandate.

“It’s abundantly clear that nowhere in the interview did the Governor express opposition to the individual mandate,” said Megan Castle, a spokeswoman for Hickenlooper.

“What he said is that, put in the right context, most consumers will want to buy coverage if it is made available and affordable. If the Supreme Court strikes down the federal mandate, Colorado will be forced to consider other options to provide insurance, and that hypothetical is what the Governor responded to.”

Here’s more of what Hickenlooper said in the interview with Warner:

“If you can create a context where you can make it easy for people to be in a pool and at the same time create a financial incentive to embrace that new system — in other words, there’s got to be an economic incentive, it’s got to be an enterprise that makes sense financially — then it’s going to create momentum of its own,” Hickenlooper said.

“In the end, I don’t think you have to mandate it if, if you craft it properly.”

“I don’t think we can cover everything for everyone, but I do think we can create a basic health care umbrella that — the crucial things that can kill you, cancer, deadly diseases, I think everyone deserves to have some coverage there, and they’ve got to pay something.

“If we can begin to look at lowering costs and making sure we aren’t sending, say, Medicaid patients to the emergency rooms of our hospitals every time they need care, which is the most expensive way to provide that care,” Hickenlooper continued.

“If we can make sure that we have preventative health care at a much more robust level, more exercise, better foods, healthier lifestyles — really push that so employers embrace that — I don’t think we have to mandate something that makes so much sense.

“If people can get health care coverage that they can afford, they’ll grab onto it.”

Toward the end of the interview, Warner asked Hickenlooper point-blank: “Am I hearing from a Democratic governor that you don’t like the individual mandate?”

“You must have misheard that,” Hickenlooper responded. “I think in certain circumstances, mandates are necessary, right?. You’ve got to be 16 to drive. That’s a mandate, right? You obviously need some mandates.

“I think one of the issues around health care, everyone’s talking about you’ve got to have this mandate. I think there might be other ways to do it without using a mandate.”