LOUISVILLE — Vice President Pence was in full charm mode Saturday when he touched down here for a visit to try to sell the Republican health-care plan in a state that has a complex relationship with former president Barack Obama’s Affordable Care Act.
Just a day earlier, Kentucky’s Republican Gov. Matt Bevin had told reporters that while he is eager to overhaul Obama’s health plan, he found himself skeptical of the initial Republican proposal and more in line with the views of Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.), who has been an outspoken opponent of the bill.
Paul, Bevin said, “is not impressed with what has currently been offered. Truth be told, I’m not, either. So I’m with him.”
And so, Pence got to work just moments after Air Force Two stopped taxiing. Bevin greeted the vice president at the airport with two of his young sons and one of the their friends, and Pence quickly invited them back onboard the plane for a behind-the-scenes peek.
Then, at a roundtable before his speech, Pence touted Bevin’s business background and invited the group to applaud him, before quipping, “I was for Matt Bevin before it was cool” — a line he later repeated during his official remarks.
During his speech, the vice president again singled out the governor for praise — as well as ribbing him about their states’ college basketball rivalry (Pence is from Indiana). He called Bevin “a principled leader” and recalled attending the governor’s inaugural address.
“Anybody else remember that sunny day?” he asked.
But if Pence seemed determined to win over Bevin, his effort to actually sell the health plan released last week by the White House and Republican Congress was a bit more lackluster. Standing before a crowd of more than 100 invitees at Harshaw Trane, an energy company here, Pence spoke for just over 20 minutes, reading from teleprompters a speech that felt as much like a generic campaign pitch as a genuine appeal for the health-care plan.
“Most importantly of all, the top priority the president gave us, is to work with members of Congress to make sure the Obamacare nightmare is about to end,” Pence said.
With Republican Kentucky Reps. Garland “Andy” Barr and Brett Guthrie in the audience, Pence also made an appeal for his entire party to unite behind the White House’s legislation.
“Folks, let me be clear, this is going to be a battle in Washington, D.C.,” he said. “And for us to seize this opportunity to repeal and replace Obamacare once and for all, we need every Republican in Congress — and we’re counting on Kentucky.”
In many ways, Kentucky represents the front line of the health-care debate. The number of Kentuckians enrolled in Medicaid has doubled since the end of 2013, with nearly one-third of its residents now in the program. Pence’s motorcade passed a group of protesters chanting, “Save our care.”
Under Obama’s health plan, governors were given the option to expand Medicaid in their home states, and since late 2013, roughly 10 million additional people in 31 states and the District have enrolled in the program. Steve Beshear, Bevin’s Democratic predecessor who expanded Medicaid during his tenure, gave the Democratic rebuttal to President Trump’s recent joint address to Congress.
Bevin, however, has said that Medicaid will ultimately bankrupt the state, and he ended new sign-ups, started under Beshear, to Kentucky’s health exchange.
Bevin, speaking before Pence on Saturday, played down disagreements within the Republican Party, saying that even most married couples don’t agree on everything for the first two days of their relationship — let alone 20 years. He called Obama’s health plan a “catastrophe” and a “disaster” that needs to be repealed and replaced.
Pence, who was also recently deployed to Ohio and Wisconsin to help push the Republican health plan, sought to cast health care as yet another bold action the administration has taken early in its term.
Trump, Pence said, “made a promise to you, the American people, and as I like to say, this White House is in the promise-keeping business.” He then listed several of the White House’s accomplishments so far, citing the process underway to end illegal immigration, the Keystone XL and Dakota Access pipelines and the most recent jobs report.
“The truth is Kentucky is a textbook example of Obamacare’s failures,” Pence said, before reassuring “the people of Kentucky who might be looking on this morning” that his administration was racing to create a better replacement plan.
“We’re going to work with the Congress and work with our agency at Health and Human Services, and we're going to have an orderly transition to a better health-care system that makes affordable, high-quality health insurance available for every American,” he said.
Later, back at the airport preparing to depart for the District, Pence again paid special attention to Bevin.
The two got out of their car to pose for a picture, and Pence gently tugged Bevin’s elbow, as if literally trying to pull him a bit closer to his perspective.