ATLANTA — Florida Gov. Rick Scott long opposed President Barack Obama's remake of the health insurance market. After the Democratic president won re-election, the Republican governor softened his tone. He said he wanted to "have a conversation" with the administration about implementing the 2010 law. With a federal deadline approaching, he also said while Florida won't set up the exchange for individuals to buy private insurance policies, the feds can do it.
In New Jersey, Gov. Chris Christie held his cards before saying he won't set up his own exchange, but he's avoided absolute language and says he could change his mind. He's also leaving his options open to accept federal money to expand Medicaid insurance for people who aren't covered. The caveat, Christie says, is whether Health Secretary Kathleen Sebelius can "answer my questions" about its operations and expense.
Both Republican governors face re-election in states that Obama won twice, Christie in 2013 and Scott in 2014. And both will encounter well-financed Democrats.
Their apparent struggles on the issue, along with other postures by their GOP colleagues elsewhere, suggest political uncertainty for Republicans as the Affordable Care Act starts to go into effect two years after clearing Congress without a single Republican vote. The risks also are acute for governors in Democratic-leaning or swing-voting states or who know their records will be parsed should they seek the presidency in 2016 or beyond.
"It's a tough call for many Republican governors who want to do the best thing for their state but don't want to be seen as advancing an overhaul that many Republicans continue to detest," said Whit Ayers, a consultant in Virginia whose clients include Gov. Bill Haslam of Tennessee, a Republican who didn't announce his rejection of a state exchange until days before Sebelius's Dec. 14 deadline.
Indeed, cracks keep growing in the near-unanimous Republican rejection of Obama's health care law that characterized the GOP's political messaging for the last two years. Five GOP-led states — Idaho, Mississippi, Nevada, New Mexico, and Utah — are pressing ahead with state insurance exchanges. Ongoing monitoring by The Associated Press shows that another five Republican-led states are pursuing or seriously a partnership with Washington to help run the new markets.
Democrats, meanwhile, hope to use the law and Republican inflexibility to their advantage, betting that more Americans will embrace the law once it expands coverage. The calculus for voters, Democrats assume, will become more about the policy and less about a polarizing president.
"It shouldn't be complicated at all," said John Anzalone, an Obama pollster who assists Democrats in federal races across the country. Anzalone said Republicans could use their own states-rights argument to justify running exchanges. Instead, he said, "They are blinded by Obama-hatred rather than seeing what's good for their citizens."
Governors can set up their own exchanges, partner with Sebelius' agency or let the federal government do it. The exchanges are set to open Jan. 1, 2014, allowing individuals and businesses to shop online for individual policies from private insurers. Low- and middle-income individuals will get federal premium subsidies calculated on a sliding income scale. Eighteen states plus Washington, DC, most led by Democrats, have committed to opening their own exchanges.