Pence takes health care push to West Michigan airwaves

Jonathan Oosting, and Melissa Nann Burke

Vice President Mike Pence took to the airwaves this week in West Michigan, touting a Republican plan to overhaul the nation's healthcare system in the backyard of one of the most vocal GOP critics of the bill.

From Washington, Pence did interviews with WOOD-TV on Wednesday evening and WOOD Radio on Thursday morning, arguing the House GOP proposal introduced last week would give consumers more choice and ultimately “lower the cost of healthcare in the competitive free market.”

Both stations are based in Grand Rapids, where President Donald Trump ended his 2016 campaign in November by repeating his vow to immediately repeal and replace the “disaster known as Obamacare” — his predecessor’s signature healthcare law.

The new plan backed by Trump and House Speaker Paul Ryan, R-Wisconsin, would eliminate several health insurance mandates and taxes implemented under former President Barack Obama. Instead of insurance subsidies to increase affordability, consumers could qualify for tax credits to purchase policies.

U.S. Rep. Justin Amash, a Cascade Township Republican whose district includes Grand Rapids, has derided the new plan as “Obamacare 2.0” and shared his views on national and local TV and radio programs this week, including CNN, Fox Business and WJR’s Frank Beckmann Show.

“I don’t see how this bill goes anywhere,” Amash said on CNN on Wednesday. They’re “taking the Obamacare framework and trying to call it a Republican piece of legislation.”

On Fox Business, Amash argued the legislation has no constituency: “Republicans don’t like it, Democrats don’t like it and it seems like the only people who do like it are people in Washington, and maybe the insurance lobby.”

Amash also said he wants to repeal the Affordable Care Act, but the bill is “not a GOP repeal and replace."

Amash suggested the Republican legislation would face a tough path in the GOP-led Congress, where conservatives like him argue it does not go far enough to cut costs, and Democrats argue that “Trumpcare” will ultimately reduce the number of insured by making policies unaffordable, particularly for seniors and the poor.

Sen. Debbie Stabenow of Lansing has blasted the bill, saying it would remove the requirement that insurers cover maternity care and birth control. “Being a woman is again going to be a preexisting condition,” she said Thursday outside the U.S. Capitol.

The House Ways and Means Committee early Thursday advanced a key part of the new proposal, after blocking an amendments from Democrats on the panel, including Rep. Sandy Levin of Royal Oak, who wanted Republicans to wait for an estimate by the nonpartisan Congressional Budget Office of how much the legislation would cost and how many Americans would be covered.

Another key committee, the House Energy and Commerce panel, was in session overnight and into Thursday morning marking up the bill. There, amendments offered by Rep. Debbie Dingell, D-Dearborn, and rejected by Republicans included one to restore long-term care provisions for seniors.

Pence is working to sell the legislation to both the public and members of Congress, where he previously served before becoming governor of Indiana.

His West Michigan media appearances were among several regional media interviews this week. Both Grand Rapids stations also reach the district of U.S. Rep. Bill Huizenga, who has criticized Obama’s Affordable Care Act but said Thursday he is “still digesting” details of the House GOP plan working its way through the legislative process.

“It is going to be difficult because, frankly, getting into what we currently have was difficult,” Huizenga said on WHTC radio in Holland. “It was a 14-month process. This is difficult for us to extract ourselves from this failed system.”

Pence also met this week with the leaders of two conservative groups that have criticized the plan — the Heritage Foundation and Club for Growth – and was back on Capitol Hill on Thursday morning talking to lawmakers.

“People in the coming weeks are going to continue to see the Congress debate this bill,” Pence said on Grand Rapids radio. “We expect there’s going to be opportunities to improve it. The president and I continue to listen very intently to members of the House and Senate about ways we can improve it.”

The House plan would phase out enhanced funding for expansion of Medicaid eligibility for low-income residents, but Pence said it would “give states like Michigan greater flexibility in crafting programs through Medicaid that will truly and more effectively meet the needs of the most-vulnerable.”

Pence began his Thursday morning interview by saying “the people of West Michigan are certainly in our prayers this morning after the rough weather that’s passed through,” referencing wind storms that swept the state Wednesday.

Trump was the first Republican to win Michigan since 1988, and Pence concluded his interview by noting “the president and I were just so grateful for the support from the people of Michigan.”

mburke@detroitnews.com