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Walker Offers Obamacare Alternative As He Tries To Regain Footing In GOP Race

By Noah Bierman and Noam N. Levey, Tribune Washington Bureau (TNS)

WASHINGTON – Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker rebuked both Obamacare and the Republicans who have failed to repeal it in a speech Tuesday that was intended to recharge his campaign and attract some of the anti-establishment wave that has helped Donald Trump overshadow him and other rivals.

Walker’s proposal to repeal and replace President Barack Obama’s health law hews to general conservative ideas for expanding health coverage with block grants to states and a simplified system of government aid to Americans to buy insurance.

But the plan is missing many key details, including specifics on how he would pay for it. Any health care law that offers subsidies to tens of millions of Americans for health coverage, as Walker proposes to do, likely would cost hundreds of billions of dollars. Walker said it was “cost neutral” because of changes he would make to tax rules on high-end insurance plans and savings from turning Medicaid into a block-grant program for states.

For Walker, Tuesday’s speech, at a Minnesota factory where he stood beside an American flag, wooden boxes and a screen with plan highlights, was an attempt to re-establish himself as a top contender for the nomination by returning to a theme that has energized core Republicans in recent elections. He also used the moment to cast himself as a party outsider, a modification of his prior emphasis on the fights he had with public labor unions when he stripped them of many of their collective bargaining rights.

“I’m willing to stand up against anyone, including members of my own party,” he said, “to get the job done.”

He said that he had to coax reluctant Republicans in his own state who “didn’t want to challenge the status quo” to join his fight against unions shortly after he took office in 2011. “That was the headline: ‘Walker says it’s put up or shut up time,’ ” he said.

He chastised Republicans in Washington for their failure to repeal Obamacare, a campaign promise that has galvanized conservatives but one that many party leaders have long thought unrealistic while Obama is in the White House.

“I want to be clear,” he said. “Americans want more than just campaign promises; they want results.”

Walker’s entry into the race last month coincided with Trump’s emergence as a poll leader and media magnet, overshadowing Walker’s efforts to introduce himself to voters. Walker, whose performance in last week’s debate has been criticized as lackluster, has seen his support drop in Iowa and other states he needs to capture if he expects to win the Republican nomination for president.

Walker previously led many Iowa polls and scored well in national Republican surveys. But a CNN poll of likely Iowa caucus-goers released last week showed him in third place, with 9 percent of the vote, behind both Trump (22 percent) and retired doctor Ben Carson (14 percent). Another CNN poll released Tuesday of national GOP voters had his support at 8 percent, tied for fourth place with Florida Sen. Marco Rubio.

Walker has tried to capture some of Trump’s excitement. On Monday in Iowa, he embraced several of Trump’s immigration policies, including suggesting to an MSNBC reporter that he too would end the right to citizenship for children of illegal immigrants born in the United States.

Trump’s hard-line immigration proposal, released over the weekend, has pushed other candidates to release more details of their policy plans. Walker said Tuesday that policy proposals on other issues would follow soon, to demonstrate his belief that “if you want to get things done, you have to have a plan.”

Rubio released a set of health care goals in an opinion piece written Monday night for Politico. While hardly a plan, it includes three goals: a tax credit for purchasing insurance, a high-risk insurance pool backed by the government for those who cannot purchase insurance on the open market and replacing Medicaid with a block-grant program.

Walker’s health plan also promises to limit government interference while still ensuring affordable coverage for those with pre-existing conditions.

“It’s all about freedom, putting freedom back into the hands of patients and families,” he said.

That’s a challenging goal. Five years after the Affordable Care Act was enacted, Republicans have not advanced a single alternative, in large part because maintaining the law’s current protections for consumers while also cutting costs is extremely difficult.

Meanwhile, in Wisconsin, Walker’s resistance to the law is taking a rising toll, data show. An analysis this year from the state’s independent Legislative Fiscal Bureau estimated that Wisconsin could save $360 million over the next two years if Walker agreed to accept federal aid available through the law to provide Medicaid coverage to poor adults in the state.

“There is no such thing as free federal money,” Walker said Tuesday, asserting that his decision upset some Republicans along with Democrats in his state. “We’re all taxpayers.”

And while the plan promises lower costs with fewer federal regulations, it is far from clear that Walker would deliver, especially for low- and middle-income Americans and those in need of more extensive medical care.

Walker’s proposal would maintain guaranteed coverage to Americans with pre-existing medical conditions, a revolutionary part of the current law, though the assurance is more limited than what the law offers because it protects only consumers who maintain continuous health coverage.

Like Obamacare, his proposal would offer tax subsidies to Americans who don’t get coverage at work to help them buy health plans, but the amount of aid would be tied to consumers’ age, rather than their income, with older Americans receiving more assistance.

That is a simpler system, but it could expose many lower-income Americans to higher insurance costs than they now face.

In a move to control insurance premiums, Walker, like other Republicans, wants to scrap most federal requirements on health plans in the current law. The Affordable Care Act mandates a basic set of benefits that health plans must offer and prohibits annual and lifetime limits on coverage.

And Walker’s plan would dramatically restructure the way the federal government funds state Medicaid programs for the poor, moving to a system of block grants that restrict federal expenditures and place fewer requirements on states.

“If this vague grab-bag of conservative wish-list items is the best health plan the GOP can come up with for the largest economy on earth, it’s the clearest signal yet that Republicans like Scott Walker are out of ideas and out of touch,” Democratic spokesman Eric Walker said in a statement.

(c)2015 Tribune Co. Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.

Photo: Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker speaks to a small crowd at Cass Screw Machine Company on Aug. 18, 2015 in Brooklyn Center, Minn. Walker announced his “Day One Plan” to replace Obamacare. (Glenne Stubbe/Minneapolis Star Tribune/TNS)