LOUISVILLE — While proclaiming President Barack Obama's health care law "the worst piece of legislation in my lifetime," Kentucky gubernatorial candidate James Comer unveiled a health care policy platform Monday that assumes "Obamacare" will be the "rule of law" for the next governor.
Two of Comer's opponents — former U.S. Senate candidate Matt Bevin and recently retired state Supreme Court Justice Will T. Scott — have said they would end Kentucky's state-run health insurance exchange, Kynect, on their first day in office.
Although Comer described Kynect as a "tool to greatly expand Medicaid," he stopped short of calling for its demise. Doing so probably would increase costs for Kentucky taxpayers, the state's commissioner of agriculture said at a news conference packed with health care executives.
"There are costs associated with keeping Kynect, but most people don't realize there are costs associating with getting rid of Kynect," he said. "So under my administration, all options with regards to Kynect will be on the table."
"I will have to govern under a bad law, which is Obamacare. But as governor, I will only fight for options that save taxpayer dollars."
It is "unsustainable" to have 25 percent of Kentuckians on Medicaid, said Comer, who plans to focus on reducing the number of Medicaid enrollees by attracting more businesses that provide health insurance benefits and ensuring that Medicaid recipients actually are eligible for the benefit.
Comer began his event by echoing U.S. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell's call to repeal the federal Affordable Care Act "root and branch," but he conceded that the federal government would determine the law's future.
As governor, Comer said, he would focus on ways to reduce the need and subsequent costs of Medicaid, including prevention and education efforts, moving the program from "volume" to "value," and making the next commissioner of Medicaid someone from the "provider community."
He also called for focusing tax-incentive programs on companies that provide "a living wage" and benefits.
"That's a big deal in this state," Comer said. "Because we shouldn't give tax incentives to companies that have a high percentage of employees that don't make a living wage and end up on Medicaid. That's double subsidizing those companies."
Other planks of his health care platform include overhauling the state's health care bureaucracy and tort reform to reduce frivolous malpractice lawsuits.
Candidates who offer repeal of the federal health law as a solution are misleading voters, Comer said.
"My opponents want to talk about bullet points and say things that they know at the end of the day they cannot do," Comer told the Herald-Leader after the event. "One opponent says he's going to do everything by executive order on day one. That's what we criticize Obama for."
Comer's opponents were quick to criticize his plan.
David Adams, Scott's campaign manager and the state's most well-known crusader against "Obamacare," said Monday that Scott's "first day in office will be the end of the Obamacare exchange."
Adams accused Comer of flip-flopping on the law and took issue with Comer's plan to more stringently enforce Medicaid eligibility requirements so that "able-bodied" Kentuckians aren't getting free health care.
"Comer has ... apparently not read anything about Medicaid eligibility if he really thinks he can kick people off when he decides they are healthy," Adams said. "Embarrassing day for Comer."
But some of the health care executives who were in the room disagreed with that take.
Stephen Williams, CEO of Norton Healthcare, said after the event that he was "very impressed" with Comer's presentation.
"I think he's got a platform that's been very well thought about," Williams said. "It shows that he's been listening."
In a statement, Bevin campaign manager Ben Hartman accused Comer and former Louisville councilman Hal Heiner of waiting too long to take a stance on health care issues.
"It's unfortunate that it took both Mr. Heiner and Commissioner Comer over a year to release their plans," Hartman said. "Once elected, the next governor will not have a year to get to work for the people of Kentucky, so I appreciate these other candidates following Matt's leadership and understanding the importance of sharing their agenda with Kentuckians."
When asked to compare Comer's plan to those of other candidates, Williams said Comer's was "really the only one I've seen yet in terms of any comprehensive plan."
"I'll obviously be watchful of that, but he's the only one that I'm aware of that's rolled out a real health care platform," Williams said.
Heiner, who appears to have taken the title of frontrunner with less than two months until the May 19 primary, has not unveiled a health care plan.
On his campaign website under a section titled "Our plan to stand up to Washington," Heiner's campaign said the former Louisville mayoral candidate would join McConnell and U.S. Sen. Rand Paul in calling for the repeal of "Obamacare."
"Obamacare's one-size-fits-all approach isn't right for Kentucky," Heiner's site says. "We need a health care system that is based on competition and free-market principles."
Comer said his plan was put together after months of consultation with the health care community, and he pointed to a room crowded with health care executives in Heiner's hometown as evidence that he was the only one listening to them.
"He talks to them about how successful he's been in the private sector and that we need an outsider in Frankfort," Comer said of Heiner. "That's not reassured anybody in the health care industry to support his campaign."
Comer said he planned to unveil four more policy platforms in the coming weeks that deal with higher education, government accountability, expanding the middle class and investing in the state's future.