LEXINGTON, Ky. — Vice President Mike Pence promoted a revamped Senate health care bill Wednesday, choosing the home turf of Kentucky's high-profile senators to "turn up the heat" on the struggling Republican effort to uproot former President Barack Obama's health care law.
Pence praised Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell's management of the health care issue, even as the state's other senator, Rand Paul, renewed his opposition to a new GOP proposal, insisting it doesn't go far enough in erasing Obama's signature law.
In a campaign-style speech at a small business, Pence said the revised health care bill that McConnell planned to introduce Thursday adheres to conservative principles that would deliver more affordable health care with greater choices for consumers.
"I came here today to turn up the heat, because this is the moment," the vice president said. "Now is the time. It's time for Congress to step up and repeal and replace Obamacare."
Pence predicted that the Republican repeal-and-replace effort will succeed this summer.
He then turned his attention to Kentucky's senators, praising them both even as they found themselves on opposite sides of the health care debate. Both McConnell and Paul have pledged for years to uproot Obama's health care law.
"The president and I believe when the time comes, Sen. Mitch McConnell and Sen. Rand Paul will do the right thing together and we will pass legislation to repeal and replace Obamacare," he said.
Paul, a tea party favorite and former presidential candidate who helped to block an earlier Senate vote on health care, sounded unpersuaded by Pence's comments.
"As Senator Paul has said, he strongly favors repealing Obamacare," his office said in a statement after Pence's speech. "Unfortunately, the current Senate bill doesn't do that and leaves most of its taxes and regulations in place."
Earlier in the day, in an interview with The Associated Press, Paul reminded his Republican colleagues that they made a pledge to voters to fully repeal the health care law.
"It's very surprising that here we are with a bill that doesn't repeal Obamacare and creates a brand-new superfund for insurance companies," Paul said.
In offering a sneak preview of the new McConnell-sponsored health care bill, Pence said it would repeal Obamacare mandates, ensure coverage for people with pre-existing health conditions and strengthen Medicaid "''for the people who need it most." It will expand health savings accounts and offer tax credits to help people purchase coverage, he said.
"We are very close to achieving what we've talked about for the last seven years," Pence said.
In leaving Washington to make his pitch, Pence chose one of the states with the most at stake in the health care debate. Pence heard from several small business operators who complained that the existing law has burdened them and their employees with skyrocketing costs and limited coverage.
Pence called Kentucky a "case study of Obamacare's failure," pointing to fast-rising premiums and deductibles and shrinking choices for many people seeking coverage on health exchanges under the ACA.
But former Kentucky Gov. Steve Beshear said the event was another example of President Donald Trump's administration "choosing to put politics over people." Beshear, a Democrat, has been among the biggest advocates for Obama's law, which he used to expand health care coverage to many more Kentuckians and push the state's uninsured rates to historic lows.
"Vice President Pence should skip the private meeting with his carefully chosen audience and instead face the 231,000 Kentuckians who will lose health coverage if Sen. McConnell's horrific plan to destroy the ACA becomes law," Beshear said in a statement. "And he should be urging his party leaders to sit down with health experts, Democrats and others to work on health care."
Kentucky was among the states that expanded its Medicaid programs under the federal law to cover childless adults making below a certain income level. Beshear made that decision, which added more than 400,000 people to the state's Medicaid rolls and is credited with slashing the number of people without health insurance in Kentucky from 20 percent to 7.5 percent in just two years, among the largest coverage gains in the country.
While federal funding covers most of that, Kentucky's Republican Gov. Matt Bevin says the state can't afford to pay its share for all of the new people allowed to enroll in Medicaid because of the Affordable Care Act, especially with the state facing a multibillion-dollar public pension shortfall.