WASHINGTON -- Does Mitt Romney protest too much?
He does, says the chief architect of the landmark Massachusetts health care plan that the former governor signed into law, one which Romney now all but disowns in public appearances widely seen as preparations for the 2012 Republican presidential primary race.
"It's largely political," Jonathan Gruber, an economist at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, said of Romney's call to repeal the one-year-old federal Affordable Care Act. Gruber also worked with Obama administration officials and Congress to write the federal health care law.
As the fifth anniversary of the Massachusetts law approaches next month, it has become Romney's chief handicap in the former governor's prospective bid for the Republican presidential nomination. The state law is also expected to serve as a preview of how the federal law will -- or will not -- work on the national level in a few years.
For the federal law, "Massachusetts absolutely was the model," Gruber said. "It would have been much harder if we didn't have a working example to show that it worked."
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Democrats from President Barack Obama on down haven't been helping Romney with his fellow Republicans by offering strong praise for his state plan. Like Gruber, they've repeatedly described it as the template for the president's signature law.
In particular, Republicans have slammed the Massachusetts law for being the first to require an "individual mandate" that levies fines on those without health insurance, a central provision in the national law that state-level GOP lawmakers are challenging in court.
Gruber said Romney insisted on including the mandate in order to prevent "free-riding" by healthy people "ripping off the system by not getting insurance" only to end up on the taxpayer dole after they get in an accident or get sick.
Still, key conservative figures have expressed a distaste for "RomneyCare" almost as strong as their revulsion at "ObamaCare."
Former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee, another possible presidential contender, urged Romney to apologize for the Massachusetts law, saying it "cost more, waiting times were higher, quality of care went down, people were greatly dissatisfied and it ended up having almost the polar opposite effect of what was intended."
However, a new analysis by FactCheck.org "found that there's not much truth in any of that." The watchdog group noted that the Massachusetts plan has, overall, had more positive effects than negative and enjoys widespread popular support.
The state law was "a blueprint for the sweeping federal legislation that followed," the FactCheck report said, except for "one major distinction:"
The level of vitriol directed at the federal law doesn't exist in Massachusetts. Sure, there are criticisms and compromises, disagreements and disappointments -- but they come with a distinct lack of the death-panel-type furor that rose up against the law Obama pushed.
For his part, Romney has judged Obama's version of health care reform harshly, saying that it is "bad law, bad policy and it is bad for America's families."
Speaking at a recent GOP fundraiser in New Hampshire, Romney sought to distance himself from Obama's signature law -- and his own.
"Our experiment wasn't perfect; some things worked, some didn't, and some things I'd change," he said. "One thing I would never do is usurp the constitutional power of states with a one-size-fits-all federal takeover."
Gruber said Romney was being "subtly hypocritical" and "misleading" to suggest that if Massachusetts could devise its own health care plan, then other states should be allowed to go their own way, as well.
"Romney likes to brag he did it without raising taxes, but he doesn't mention that the feds paid for half of it," Gruber said, referring to $400 million in unused Medicaid funds that Massachusetts had to spend or else return to Washington.
It also didn't hurt that in 2006, Massachusetts already had the lowest proportion of residents without health insurance of any state, 7.7 percent compared to 14.8 percent nationwide.
"It was cheaper because we had fewer people to cover," said Gruber, who is on the board of the state's health insurance purchasing exchange.
The exchange, along with the individual mandate and subsidies to low-income people who can't afford health insurance, are at the heart of both the Massachusetts and national plans -- another key similarity, Gruber said.
"The basic framework is identical," he said. "The details differ."