House Republicans slow to back health bill endorsed by candidate Herman Cain

The healthcare bill that Republican presidential candidate Herman Cain plugged as an alternative to President Obama’s reforms has only 16 cosponsors in the House.

During Tuesday night’s debate in Las Vegas, Cain referenced the “Empower Patients First Act,” which Rep. Tom Price (R-Ga.) introduced in 2009 as an alternative to Obama’s healthcare proposal. A revised version of the bill would repeal Obama’s healthcare law and replace it with a new system that includes several leading Republican priorities.

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Price reintroduced the measure last month, but so far it only has 16 cosponsors. By contrast, a bill to simply repeal the Obama health law, without a replacement, garnered 182 House cosponsors in two days.

Republicans have faced persistent questions about their commitment to the “replace” part of their “repeal and replace” agenda for healthcare. The House GOP has brought to the floor several bills to eliminate parts of Obama’s healthcare law, but it has advanced fewer tangible alternatives. And none of the party’s presidential candidates has released a healthcare plan.

Cain’s reference makes the “Empower Patients” Act the most comprehensive plan mentioned in the Republican primary. It is at least among the most comprehensive legislative proposals in Congress, if not the most comprehensive.

Price’s bill would repeal Obama’s healthcare law and replace it with a new system that includes some of Republicans’ top healthcare priorities, such as allowing insurers to sell policies across state lines and limiting awards in medical malpractice suits.

The bill would offer low-income people a refundable tax credit to purchase insurance and give small businesses a credit for offering coverage.

It would expand so-called association health plans. As an alternative to employer-based coverage or the costly individual market, groups such as churches and alumni associations could offer insurance to their members.

It also would let people opt out of Medicaid and the Children’s Health Insurance Program; in addition to providing care directly through those programs, states would have to give patients the option of a voucher for private coverage. They could not require beneficiaries to choose private coverage.

States would receive extra money from the federal government — a total of $300 million per year — to operate high-risk pools for people who have been denied coverage because of a pre-existing condition.

Price’s office said it’s reaching out for new cosponsors and expects to add support in the coming days and weeks.