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Romney defends plan to repeal Obama healthcare law

Repealing President Obama’s healthcare law would not keep people from getting insurance or quality care, GOP presidential nominee Mitt Romney said Wednesday.

In an interview with the editorial board of the Columbus Dispatch, Romney defended his plans to repeal the healthcare law, saying the uninsured could still visit an emergency room and that people with preexisting conditions could keep their insurance.

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“We don’t have a setting across this country where if you don’t have insurance, we just say to you, ‘Tough luck, you’re going to die when you have your heart attack,’ ” Romney said. 

“No, you go to the hospital, you get treated, you get care, and it’s paid for, either by charity, the government or by the hospital,” he said.

“We don’t have people that become ill, who die in their apartment because they don’t have insurance,” Romney added.

The comment drew criticism from the Obama campaign, which said it showed Romney did not understand the struggles of middle-class families that lack insurance.

“If he did, he wouldn’t claim that no one in this country dies because they don’t have health insurance when, in fact, experts estimate that 26,000 people die prematurely every year because they don’t have coverage,” said Obama campaign spokeswoman Lis Smith.

Healthcare is a challenging issue for Romney, who backed an overhaul of the healthcare laws in Massachusetts as that state's governor that President Obama has said served as a basis for his own federal healthcare law. 

Romney embraces the Massachusetts law, but argues that different states should be free to set up their own healthcare laws. He has described "ObamaCare" as a federal takeover of state healthcare law. 

In the interview in Columbus, Romney also said he would ensure people with preexisting conditions could not be blocked from getting health insurance as long as they previously had health insurance. But he suggested insurance companies would not be obliged to cover people with preexisting conditions who had never had been insured. 

“You have to deal with those people who are currently uninsured, and help them have the opportunity to have insurance," Romney told the Columbus newspaper.

"But then once people have all had that opportunity to become insured, if someone chooses not to become insured, and waits for 10 or 20 years and then gets ill and then says ‘Now I want insurance,’ you could hardly say to an insurance company, ‘Oh, you must take this person now that they’re sick,’ or there’d literally be no reason to have insurance."

The comments come as Romney has sought to edge toward the political center with some of his remarks. After an impressive debate performance last week, polls have shown Romney edging into a lead over Obama, and the two men are intensely fighting over centrist, Independent voters. 

Obama's healthcare law remains unpopular in polls, and conservatives argue it will raise taxes and limit growth while adding to the deficit. 

Obama and the law's supporters argue it will lower government spending and national healthcare costs, in part by requiring younger, healthier people to purchase insurance. 

Federal law requires that virtually every U.S. hospital treat anyone who arrives needing emergency care, a guarantee passed in 1986 as part of the Emergency Medical Treatment and Active Labor Act (EMTALA).

The law was designed to prevent the situation Romney described on Wednesday — uninsured Americans dying in their homes for lack of care — but it also creates a “free-rider” problem by burdening hospitals with costs they pass to other patients.

Smith cited a report by the liberal advocacy group Families USA, which supports the healthcare law, that found 26,000 Americans die every year because of a lack of health coverage.

In 2009, nonpartisan researchers at Harvard Medical School pegged the number of U.S. deaths related to lack of coverage closer to 45,000 annually.

This story was updated at 3:30 p.m.