Flip-flopping is bad; lying is worse

Jon Huntsman’s health care problem is likely to be challenging enough as it is. By some accounts, Huntsman expressed support for the Affordable Care Act while it was pending in Congress, only to change his mind once he hit the presidential campaign trail. Yesterday, Huntsman went so far as to say, “If I had a chance to repeal it, I would.”

As it turns out, though, Huntsman has another health care problem, and this one is arguably worse.

Team Huntsman would have voters believe that the former Utah governor, unlike President Obama and Mitt Romney, has no use for individual health care mandates, as reflected by his 2008 reform measure at the state level. But as the Huffington Post reports, there’s reason to believe Huntsman may be playing fast and loose with the facts.

One month before the 2004 election, Huntsman invited [Dr. David Sundwall, who was executive director of Utah’s Department of Health] to his home to ask him to join his administration if he won the gubernatorial race. Sundwall said in an interview this week that he asked Huntsman what he wanted to do.

“He said, ‘I’d like everyone in Utah to have health insurance. It’s something that all of us long for. This business of the uninsured costs us a lot of money,'” Sundwall said. “It made sense to me.”

Sundwall accepted the job. As soon as Huntsman was sworn in, the administration convened a group on health care to hash out a reform plan. They met for regular dinners at the house of a supporter who lived near the governor’s residence. The group concluded, Sundwall said, that you couldn’t do reform without a mandate.

The governor, he added, signed on to the idea. “He was supportive,” Sundwall said. “It was something he would have liked to have happened.”

The Huntsman administration’s support for a mandate didn’t much matter in the legislature, where GOP leaders quickly rejected the idea. The provision was soon scuttled.

But the relevant point now is that Huntsman supported the idea from the outset. His own health department director isn’t the only one to say so — the executive director of the nonpartisan Utah Health Policy Project also said the then-governor wanted a mandate, as do media accounts from the time.

Local press reports from the time also reflect a different picture than the one Huntsman relates now, as he tries to win over the decidedly right-leaning Republican primary electorate.

Far from quickly dropping the idea of a mandate, Huntsman was “suggesting Utah should mandate health coverage for residents,” according to a July 12, 2007, Salt Lake City Weekly piece.

An August 11 Salt Lake Tribune story described the governor’s ambitious reform this way: “John T. Nielsen, who is working with the Governor’s Office in spearheading legislation for the plan, would mandate that all Utahn have health insurance through a nonprofit exchange that would facilitate the purchase of insurance.”

By the end of the summer of 2007, Huntsman’s health care panel had put together a framework for a state-based reform package — with a mandate, an exchange, and subsidies — that sounds quite a bit like the Affordable Care Act. And by all accounts, the then-governor was an “enthusiastic” supporter of that framework, though the Utah legislature ultimately opted for a far more limited approach.

This is a problem in more ways than one.

The obvious issue is the fact that the GOP — the party that came up with the mandate idea — has decided that the mandate is a political poison, and its proponents are not to be trusted. This makes Huntsman vulnerable to the same criticisms that have dogged Romney.

On a related note, if Huntsman has reversed course, he’s also that much more vulnerable to flip-flopping charges, adding to a long (and growing) list of issues in which he no longer resembles his former self.

But arguably most important is the dishonesty. Yesterday, Huntsman told reporters, “I didn’t push mandates with the legislature. You want to get that right.” But there’s ample evidence that he did push mandates with the legislature, and he’s not getting this right.

Flip-flopping can be embarrassing for a presidential candidate, but dishonesty has the potential to be far more damaging. Huntsman isn’t even a formal candidate yet, and he seems to already be slipping into some disturbing habits.