CLEVELAND ― A former Republican governor of Wisconsin, who also served in George W. Bush’s Cabinet, sent a message to the rest of his party on Tuesday: Stop trying to repeal Obamacare, and start thinking about ways to fix it.
Tommy Thompson, the former secretary of health and human services, was speaking at a luncheon on health care convened by the website RealClearPolitics. The event was held just a few blocks away from the Quicken Loans Arena, where the Republican National Convention is taking place.
But it might as well have been in another universe, given the prevailing sentiment about health care inside that arena.
Republican convention delegates, like Republican voters, support total repeal of the Affordable Care Act by overwhelming margins. Republican officials and politicians, including presumptive presidential nominee Donald Trump, say they agree.
Thompson took a different view. He made clear that he’s no fan of the health care law, decrying the taxes and regulation it has entailed ― and blaming the partisan atmosphere around the law on Democrats’ willingness to pass it on a party-line vote.
But, Thompson pointed out, the program is in place now. Health care providers have adjusted to it and patients are getting coverage through it, which means total repeal would “cause real chaos.”
And even if Republicans could get rid of Obamacare, Thompson said, they shouldn’t, because the law has “good” parts, too. He cited in particular the guarantee of coverage for people with pre-existing conditions ― because, he said, denying health care to those who need it is “not right … not American.”
“I think it’s got to be modified,” he said. “I do not believe that my political party is going to be able to put together a complete repeal. And I don’t think it should be.”
Thompson has some experience when it comes to crafting and implementing large health care programs. As HHS secretary, he presided over the introduction of Medicare Part D, the program that gives seniors prescription drug coverage.
But that program became law in a different political environment. The legislation passed with substantial Democratic support and, Thompson said, even avowed opponents like then-Sen. Edward Kennedy (D-Mass.) found ways to help. Thompson described the calls he would get from Kennedy, in the midst of the contentious legislative debate, with advice on how to strike a deal with Democrats willing to support the measure.
That kind of bipartisanship is hard to imagine today.
A case in point is the Republican attack on one particular feature of Obama’s law: a program called “risk corridors,” through which the government would reimburse insurance companies for unexpected losses, as long as the insurers agreed to give money back to the government in case of unexpected gains.
Republicans said the risk corridors were an “insurance company bailout” and, led by Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.), they managed to force legislation that cut off funding for the program. But the Medicare drug benefit also has risk corridors, and Republicans have never criticized them.
After his speech, I asked Thompson whether the two risk corridor programs differed, giving Republicans a reason to oppose one but not the other. “They’re the same thing,” he said.