President Obama offered Monday to let states design their own alternatives to the federal health care overhaul provided they fulfill certain goals.
Speaking to a gathering of the nation's governors, Obama opened the door for any state executives who think they can tackle rising health care costs and coverage barriers better than he can to step up to the plate and try it. The catch, Obama said, is that their plans would have to achieve at least what his administration claims the federal overhaul achieves with regard to coverage and cost.
"If your state can create a plan that can cover as many people as affordably and comprehensively as the Affordable Care Act does, without increasing the deficit, you can implement that plan and we'll work with you to do it," Obama said.
The offer is not as sweeping as it may sound at first. In fact, the law already allows states to propose their own framework for health care. But under the law, states cannot offer their plans until 2017. The president said Monday states could submit their ideas three years earlier, in 2014. The idea to move up the date for state experimentation was originally pitched by Oregon Democratic Sen. Ron Wyden and Massachusetts Republican Sen. Scott Brown, who proposed it in legislation.
"I think that's a reasonable proposal, I support it," Obama said Monday. "It will give you flexibility more quickly, while still guaranteeing the American people reform."
Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius expanded on the plan in a column on the White House blog. She stressed that no matter what options states propose, all Americans would still be protected from "the worst insurance company abuses."
"As a former governor, state legislator, and insurance commissioner, I know the ingenuity of state leaders to shape policies that fit the individual characteristics of their people, their industries, and their economies," Sebelius wrote.
Obama spoke Monday to governors in town for a meeting of the National Governors Association. Many of them are openly hostile to the federal health care law. About half the states are suing to overturn it, targeting its unpopular requirement that most Americans carry health insurance or face fines from the IRS.
The president also used the speech Monday to dip his toe into the debate over union rights in Wisconsin, saying public employees should not have their rights infringed upon as state governments look for ways to balance their budgets.
Without getting into the details of the Wisconsin standoff between Gov. Scott Walker and the state employee unions, Obama said he understands the fiscal challenges facing cash-strapped states and that everyone should be prepared "to give something up." But he said that shouldn't mean public employees are "vilified" during budget debates.
A number of states are following in Wisconsin's footsteps, taking up bills to cut union benefits and curtail certain rights. While protesters vow to stay in the Wisconsin state capital of Madison until collective-bargaining rights are protected, Ohio's governor is also pushing a bill to end collective-bargaining rights for public employees.
Obama, though a clear supporter of union rights, has endeavored to stay out of the debate, with his advisers describing it as a local issue. He said Monday that state governments need to be able to attract the "best and the brightest" for jobs in teaching and law enforcement and suggested union rights are critical toward that goal.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.