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Romney distances self from Mass. health plan

Governor Mitt Romney signed the healthcare legislation in a Faneuil Hall ceremony April 12, 2006, attended by Senator Edward M. Kennedy (third from left) and legislative leaders. (DAVID L. RYAN/GLOBE STAFF)

BALTIMORE -- With signs emerging that his signature healthcare plan faces hurdles, former governor Mitt Romney has begun to distance himself from the new law and is suggesting that Democrats will be to blame if the plan falters.

Yesterday, after addressing a gathering of conservative lawmakers in Baltimore, Romney told reporters that he cannot be held responsible for decisions that Beacon Hill lawmakers make about the sweeping plan now that he is out of office.

"I hope they take action that makes it work even better than I could have thought of," said Romney, who is exploring a campaign for the 2008 Republican presidential nomination. "But if they take action that makes it unworkable, I'll point that out. I'm not going to sit on the sidelines and not have a comment to make."

At recent political appearances, Romney has subtly lowered expectations for the law he championed as governor. At the Dartmouth-Hitchcock Medical Center in New Hampshire on Thursday, he warned that the Democrat-dominated Massachusetts Legislature may cause the collapse of a system he helped design.

"It is very tempting as a legislator to say, 'You're right, we'll change the law so you don't have to pay anything,' " Romney said. "And once that happens, now you start attracting people from all over that want to come get free care, and then the price starts going up, and taxpayers are going to start feeling a burden, and employers will start leaving the state."

Romney sounded a similar warning in Washington last weekend at a forum sponsored by the National Review.

"I don't know what's going to happen down the road as the Democrats get their hands [on] it," Romney said. He then made light of the fact that Senator Edward M. Kennedy -- a Massachusetts Democrat and a liberal icon -- supported his plan.

"I was a little concerned at the signing ceremony when Ted Kennedy showed up," he quipped. "It's true, we were both there."

The plan for statewide, near-universal health coverage was the centerpiece of Romney's administration, and it has become a key part of his presidential resume. But when Romney opted out of reelection in Massachusetts, the law was left to his successor, Democratic Governor Deval Patrick, and the Legislature.

The healthcare law requires all Massachusetts adults to obtain health coverage that meets minimum standards as of July 1 or pay a penalty, unless they prove they cannot afford it. Businesses with more than 10 employees but without "fair and reasonable" health insurance must pay an annual fee.

Romney introduced the idea in late 2004; after the Legislature made its own adjustments, Romney signed it into law last April. The plan was phased in during the summer and fall, and about 100,000 of the state's approximately 400,000 uninsured are covered so far.

The second phase of the law, designing affordable plans for those with slightly higher incomes, is currently underway.

Earlier this week, however, the Massachusetts Association of Health Plans estimated that more than 200,000 residents who already have health insurance will have to buy more to meet minimum standards. A state board, called the Commonwealth Health Insurance Connector, is still reviewing those standards, in part because of estimates that the average uninsured individual would have to pay some $380 a month to obtain health coverage. The board has told insurers to come back with much lower prices.

The board has broad authority to hammer out details of the plan. Three of its 10 members were appointed by Romney, but four members serve in the Patrick administration. The other three members were appointed by the former state attorney general, Thomas F. Reilly.

Romney has long said that the plan would suffer hiccups. But he now appears ready to blame Democrats for any of the plan's shortcomings, said state Senator Richard T. Moore, an Uxbridge Democrat and one of the plan's main architects.

"That's why he left [office] in a hurry," said Moore, the chairman of the Senate Health Care Financing Committee. "He's setting himself up so he can go either way. If it's a success, he'll take all the credit in the world. If it's a failure, he'll blame everybody else."

Moore said Romney can't hide the fact that he worked closely with Democrats to craft the law, and his administration was responsible for implementing its early stages. "If it doesn't work, it's going to be a shared responsibility," he said.

Romney's recent comments underscore how sensitive an issue the plan is with conservative audiences, whose support is crucial to his presidential aspirations. Many conservatives view the concept of requiring individuals to purchase health insurance -- and penalizing some businesses that don't offer it -- as anathema to their principles.

"When you say 'universal healthcare,' the first person you think of is Hillary Clinton, and the absolute debacle that Hillary-care was," said Representative Patrick McHenry, a North Carolina Republican who attended Friday's forum in Baltimore as a member of the conservative Republican Study Committee.

Though he praised Romney for offering a "bold idea" on healthcare, McHenry questioned whether Massachusetts' sanctions on businesses that don't offer adequate coverage could be "overstepping what's reasonable." Romney vetoed the fee, but the Legislature overrode the veto.

Romney "would admit there are a number of flaws in the plan," McHenry said, "but it is at least a big idea to change the debate."

Nevertheless, political opponents are using the plan to attack Romney's campaign. This week, the Democratic National Committee circulated a memo that cited fiercely critical articles about it, published on the conservative editorial pages of the Wall Street Journal and the Washington Times.

Referring to the fee on businesses, DNC spokesman Damien LaVera said: "His tax-raising record on healthcare speaks for itself."

In New Hampshire on Thursday, Romney reiterated his belief that the businesses penalty is a "bad idea." In Baltimore yesterday, he said he still believes his plan will "get everybody private, market-based health insurance" and will defend his leadership even if it falls short.

"I'm proud of what we've done in Massachusetts, regardless of the challenges it may face," Romney said. "If Massachusetts succeeds in implementing it, then that will be a model for the nation. If not, other states that are copying aspects of Massachusetts' [plan] will find a better way, and then we can copy them."

Romney also explained his decision to oppose same-sex marriage and disavow his support for abortion rights. As leader of a state, he said, "this fiscal conservative became a social conservative as well," having had to play prominent roles in the debate over the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court's legalizing of same-sex marriage and Harvard researchers' efforts to pursue therapeutic embryo cloning.

Scott Helman of the Globe staff and Globe correspondent James W. Pindell contributed to this report.