Pawlenty weighs in on healthcare, slaps Romney

Minnesota Gov. Tim Pawlenty (R) sent a letter to his congressional delegation raising concerns about the current healthcare measure House Democrats have moved through several committees.

He also took a veiled shot at one of his potential rivals.

Pawlenty urged Minnesota's seven Democrats and three Republicans to focus on cost containment and quality of care rather than simply expanding access.

"This flawed attempt at healthcare reform would do little to solve the healthcare cost crisis facing our nation," Pawlenty wrote. "I encourage you to abandon this legislation and instead evaluate what states have done to improve healthcare quality and make healthcare more accessible and affordable.

"Focusing only on access while neglecting cost and quality would be a dramatic mistake," Pawlenty added.

The bill before Congress, he said, is similar to a program implemented in Massachusetts, where costs have run higher than expected. Pawlenty said the costs of the Massachusetts plan, which succeeded in reducing the number of the uninsured, is up to $1.3 billion for 2009, well above the $387 million originally budgeted when it was passed earlier this decade.

The shot at Massachusetts is an implicit attack on the Bay State's former governor, Mitt Romney (R). Romney, a leading contender for the 2008 GOP nomination who is contemplating another run in 2012, played a major role in passing the Massachusetts healthcare reform plan.

Pawlenty pointed out costs in Minnesota, which he said are rising at a rate of 20 percent every biennium. He worried such exploding burdens on budgets would bankrupt states, and instead of the Romney plan, he pointed to a program he helped implement that links quality of care and cost.

"We welcome additional voices to the healthcare debate, but it’s very important to make sure the facts involved are accurate," Romney spokesman Eric Fehrnstrom said in an e-mail.

Fehrnstrom disputed Pawlenty's numbers, pointing out that the 2009 budget for Commonwealth Care is $723 million.

"The Massachusetts Taxpayers Foundation recently reported that the cost to taxpayers of achieving near-universal coverage has been relatively modest and well within initial projections of how much the state would have to spend," Fehrnstrom added.

Pawlenty has emerged as a leading potential candidate in the Republican field, especially after scandals sidelined South Carolina Gov. Mark Sanford (R) and Sen. John Ensign (R-Nev.).

In a party searching for a new approach, Pawlenty has risen in prominence after single-handedly closing a budget gap. He has also renewed his career-long call for Republicans to reach out to what he terms "Sam's Club voters," those in the middle class who care more about their pocketbooks than about hot-button social issues.

And as healthcare reform moves through Congress, Pawlenty has injected himself into yet another national debate.

Pawlenty and former House Speaker Newt Gingrich (R-Ga.) held a forum on healthcare costs at the University of Minnesota on July 15, and last week Pawlenty hit Fox News to discuss his record on the subject.

The letter, and the shot at Romney, are the latest events in an already busy week in which Pawlenty will raise his national profile. On Monday, Pawlenty was named vice chairman of the Republican Governors Association.

On Thursday, Pawlenty will address the Republican National Committee in San Diego, an event advisers hope will introduce him to those who could play a role should Pawlenty decide to run for president.