Bobby Jindal, with an eye on 2016, to announce plan to replace health-care law

Louisiana Republican Gov. Bobby Jindal has proposed an alternative to Obamacare. Here's a look at his recent comments about the health care overhaul he made on FOX News. (Julie Percha/The Washington Post)

Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal announced a plan Wednesday to repeal and replace President Obama’s health-care law, an effort by the Republican to insert himself into the increasingly competitive early maneuvering for his party’s presidential nomination.

Jindal, a former state and federal health official, said his plan is one of many policy proposals he will release in coming months, making clear that he wants to be viewed as a wonky problem solver.

In his 26-page plan, Jindal lays out a long critique of the health-care law and reiterates his belief that it needs to be done away with. He sets forth a bevy of ideas to replace it that have run through conservative thought for years, in some cases renaming them and in other cases suggesting new variations on old themes.

“There is a void out there,” he said in an interview. “Consider this plan open-source code for Republicans, who are welcome to cut and paste from it.”

Jindal’s move comes at a particularly active time for potential Republican candidates. Over the weekend, Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker, New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, former Florida governor Jeb Bush and Ohio Gov. John Kasich spoke before a roomful of top party donors at a Las Vegas event held by casino magnate Sheldon Adelson.

Sen. Rand Paul (Ky.), meanwhile, has announced a 50-state network of activists who will help organize his potential campaign, and others, such as Sen. Ted Cruz (Tex.), Sen. Marco Rubio (Fla.), Texas Gov. Rick Perry and former senator Rick Santorum (Pa.), continue to maintain schedules befitting possible presidential hopefuls.

With Bush, Walker, Christie and others touting their depth on domestic issues in meetings with GOP financiers, Jindal and his advisers hope his proposal will draw the attention of the fundraisers and party leaders who play a critical role in shaping the nominating battle.

But Jindal, the 42-year-old son of Indian immigrants, faces numerous hurdles as he attempts to become a contender, from a lack of enthusiasm among the party’s base voters — he finished 10th in last month’s straw poll at the Conservative Political Action Conference — to the intense tug-of-war for the support of powerful backers.

“Competing with Walker’s high-profile fight against organized labor, Christie’s name identification, Jeb’s last name and Rand Paul’s youth appeal won’t be easy,” said Grover Norquist, an anti-tax activist. “But if you look at what Jindal is doing, he’s becoming one of the five or six guys who could be taken seriously.”

Jindal’s poll numbers in Louisiana have slipped in recent months, fueled in part by his clashes with legislators over his recommendation to revamp the state’s tax code and his proposed changes to the pension system for state employees. In a February survey by Public Policy Polling, which often polls for Democratic clients, 53 percent of Louisiana voters said they disapprove of Jindal’s performance in office, and 37 percent of Republicans said they would like to see him run for president.

Senior Republicans have fretted that Christie, damaged by a traffic scandal, and Paul, a Kentuckian with a libertarian bent, may be flawed, and have begun to look elsewhere for someone who could be a match for former secretary of state Hillary Rodham Clinton, the Democrats’ leading potential candidate. For some of them, Bush, a popular figure in GOP circles, is an enticing option. It’s unclear, however, whether he will run.

Confidants of Jindal have been closely watching the buzz about a possible Bush candidacy and want to ensure Jindal isn’t forgotten as party insiders broaden their search.

Last month, the governor spoke at a Republican gathering in New Hampshire, which holds the first GOP presidential primary. “The answer is I have no plans at this time to run,” he said. “I’ve made that clear, and I will come here again and again to the state of New Hampshire to make that clear.”

Putting an emphasis on Jindal’s policy chops has become the latest project for his kitchen cabinet, which includes Curt Anderson, a former political director at the Republican National Committee, and political adviser Timmy Teepell. So is highlighting Jindal’s willingness to articulate an agenda — all while other hopefuls are making their own strides on the pre-primary stage.

“It’s early, but this is a good time for him to show how he belongs with the rest of those names,” said Charlie Black, a former campaign adviser to Sen. John McCain (Ariz.), the 2008 Republican presidential nominee.

Jindal has been steeped in the world of health policy since his career began. In his mid-20s he became secretary of Louisiana’s Department of Health and Hospitals, and then he was named the staff director of a bipartisan commission on the future of Medicare. A few years later, he became an assistant secretary in the Department of Health and Human Services under President George W. Bush.

In his plan, which he released at a breakfast in Washington hosted by the Christian Science Monitor, Jindal proposes to create what he calls a “global grant program” — commonly known as block grants — to redesign Medicaid by giving states a fixed amount of money and freeing them from federal requirements to provide certain benefits.

In other staples of Republican thinking, Jindal proposes to eliminate the long-standing tax preference for employer-based insurance, allow coverage to be sold across state lines and foster greater use of “health savings accounts,” including letting people use money in such accounts to pay their monthly insurance premiums.

His plan also borrows the central, never-realized idea from the Medicare commission on which he worked in the late 1990s, which suggests that the federal insurance program for older Americans convert to a system known as “premium support.” This would be a significant change, replacing a program in which the government sets prices and pays the medical bills of elderly patients with a new model in which the government would give those patients money to buy coverage from private health plans competing to provide their care.

A day after President Obama announced that more than 7.1 million Americans had signed up for health insurance under the Affordable Care Act, Democrats swiftly dismissed Jindal’s health-care package. “Jindal’s plan is nothing more than a rehash of failed Republican ideas that have been, and will continue to be, rejected by the voters,” said Michael Czin, a spokesman for the Democratic National Committee.

Jindal’s proposed overhaul, titled “The Freedom and Empowerment Plan,” is published under the auspices of America Next, an advocacy group he chairs.

Beyond developing a health-care plan, Jindal has been meeting with dozens of Republicans who served as influential bundlers for the campaign of Mitt Romney, the 2012 GOP presidential nominee. Prominent donors also know Jindal from his time as chairman of the Republican Governors Association. Nevertheless, few have said they would back him.

“Could he raise the money? Could he break through a crowded pack of candidates?” said Ari Fleischer, a former press secretary for George W. Bush. “Considering how wide open the Republican race is looking, I think he could, but those are the questions.”

Jindal is one of many Republicans weighing a White House bid who have focused on health-care policy. Rep. Paul Ryan (Wis.), the party’s 2012 vice presidential nominee, pushed for significant cuts to Medicaid on Tuesday as part of the House GOP’s budget, and Paul, an ophthalmologist, proposed a Medicare plan last year that would gradually raise the retirement age from 65 to 70.

“This is the first in a series of policies I will offer through America Next over the course of this year,” Jindal said. “I absolutely think the country deserves a debate, and if Republicans are going to succeed, we better have more than bumper stickers.”

Amy Goldstein is a national reporter for The Washington Post, focus on health-care policy.
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