SALT LAKE CITY — Gov. Gary Herbert said Thursday that the health care law largely upheld by the U.S. Supreme Court is still bad policy and should be repealed to avoid damaging the economy.
He went even further in his criticism during the taping of his monthly news conference, calling for voters to elect fellow Republican Mitt Romney in November to replace President Barack Obama, the architect of the Affordable Care Act.
"Unfortunately, this administration focused on health care reform, which has been the most divisive issue I've seen in my lifetime since Vietnam. This has divided our country terribly and taken our eye off the ball of economic recovery.
"I do believe if you want to repeal Obamacare, you need to repeal Obama," the governor said. "That's why I'm supporting Mitt Romney. I believe we need someone who understands free market principles."
The governor's statements drew a rebuke from his Democratic opponent, Peter Cooke.
"To make this a political issue like that, as far as I'm concerned, just is emotional," Cooke said. "I'm not going to get political. I just want to say that we need to be starting talking facts and not stirring up our population just to rally them."
Cooke, who wasn't ready to endorse the entire health care law, said Herbert's suggestion that it could simply be repealed and replaced with something better by electing Romney "shows a lack of sophistication."
University of Utah political science professor Matthew Burbank said the governor didn't go too far in calling for the president's ouster. "Clearly, it's not a big surprise that Gov. Herbert is not a fan of President Obama," Burbank said.
What is surprising, he said, is how strongly opponents of the health care law are reacting to the court ruling.
"A lot of this sort of reaction and emotiveness from conservatives in particular is a bit over the top. It's not the end of western civilization as we know it," Burbank said. "I don't know quite why there's such a visceral reaction to this."
Other Republican political leaders in GOP-dominated Utah also had sharp words for the Supreme Court decision.
Sen. Mike Lee, R-Utah, labeled the ruling "only a temporary and hollow victory" for the law. Sen. Orrin Hatch, R-Utah, said provisions of the law that were upheld amount to "a 'gun to the head' of states."
Both senators, along with Republican Reps. Jason Chaffetz and Rob Bishop, called for a repeal of the health care law. Utah's only Democratic member of Congress, Rep. Jim Matheson, stressed he voted against the law and said "there is a lot of work to do in order to achieve the right reforms."
Candidates, including Mia Love, Matheson's GOP opponent in the new 4th Congressional District, also joined in. "Obamacare is a disaster for working Utah families," she said. Republican attorney general candidate John Swallow called for the election of Romney and conservative majorities in Congress in November.
State GOP Chairman Thomas Wright said "the only way to save the country from Obamacare's budget-busting government takeover of health care is to defeat Jim Matheson" and to elect both Love and Romney.
Burbank said with the November election still months away, the rhetoric isn't likely to be toned down anytime soon. "Given how strong the view for some Republicans is, this absolutely is going to be a central them," he predicted.
Most of the governor's half-hour news conference Thursday was focused on his reaction to the ruling, released less than two hours earlier.
Herbert said the Supreme Court has created even more uncertainty about the effect of the health care law, especially the cost to the states. In Utah, he said, Medicaid costs will increase $1.3 billion over the next decade.
The governor said it's not clear the state will accept the expansion of Medicaid. "It's yet to be decided," he said. "I'm not going to do something that's going to bust our budget, I can tell you that. We need to do what's responsible on behalf of taxpayers."
States, not the federal government, should take the lead on health care reform, Herbert said. But despite his opposition to the law, the governor said Utah will "abide by its mandates" while working within its confines to make changes.
He said he will be meeting with health care leaders to analyze what the ruling means for the state. Utah, the governor said, has still not received answers sought on how the law impacts the state.
"Regardless of the decision today, I still believe it's bad policy," Herbert said. "I think Obamacare is in fact the wrong direction to go. It has brought uncertainty in the market place. I think it's going to raise the cost of health care. Certainly, the cost of insurance is going to, I believe you'll see, skyrocket if it remains the law of the land."
After the news conference, the governor said the Supreme Court only said the health care law could be implemented. "They say we're not weighing in on whether we should do it and that's the issue. I'm going to tell you we shouldn't," he said. "The answer to that question is no."
Getting behind the law now, the governor said, may ease some of the uncertainty, but "it may cause the economy to tank." He said, "We have a lot of countries that are communist. There's a lot of certainty there in communism but I'm not sure that's what we want to live under."
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