A prominent feature of the first presidential debate, healthcare was barely mentioned Tuesday night in President Barack Obama's and former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney's arguments that focused heavily on other domestic issues such as jobs, taxes, energy and immigration policy.
The two candidates addressed voters in a 90-minute town-hall format at Hofstra University in Hempstead, N.Y., three weeks before Election Day in the second of three presidential debates and the last to focus on both domestic and foreign policy.
“I actually think it was surprisingly absent given the size of healthcare as part of our federal budget, as part of our national economy—GDP—and as part of the lame-duck issues we have to tackle,” such as extending certain Medicare programs and the anticipated sequestration process, said Ilisa Halpern Paul, managing government relations director at the law firm Drinker Biddle and Reath in Washington. “I did anticipate one or two direct questions from voters.”
Instead, the candidates wove healthcare—albeit slightly—into answers to questions on other topics. For instance, the president mentioned contraceptive coverage under the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act as well as funding for Planned Parenthood during a discussion of income inequalities between men and women in the workplace. A major difference in the campaign, Obama argued, is Romney “feels comfortable having politicians in Washington decide the healthcare choices that women are making.”
The president continued by saying that his healthcare bill requires insurance companies to provide contraceptive coverage to everyone who is insured because the issue is not just a health issue, but also an economic one.
"When Gov. Romney says that we should eliminate funding for Planned Parenthood: There are millions of women all across the country who rely on Planned Parenthood for not just contraceptive care, they rely on it for mammograms, for cervical cancer screenings," Obama said. "That's a pocketbook issue for women and families all across the country, and it makes a difference in terms of how well and effectively women are able to work."
Meanwhile, Romney characterized the 2010 healthcare reform law as an example of how the Obama administration has hurt the nation's middle class and deterred small businesses from hiring new employees.
“He said he'd reform Medicare and Social Security—he hasn't even made a proposal for either one,” Romney said. “He said middle-income families would have a reduction in their health insurance premiums, it's gone up by $2,500 a year,” he continued. “If Obamacare is implemented fully, it will be another $2,500 on top. The middle class is getting crushed under the policies of a president who has not understood what it takes to get the economy working again.”
Halpern Paul and Jodie Curtis, senior government relations director at Drinker, Biddle and Reath, said it's possible that this second debate did not focus much on healthcare because it was such a prominent topic in the first match-up. And Halpern Paul noted that the latest debate ended nine minutes past the scheduled time, so it's possible the remaining questions from voters centered on healthcare.
Still, Halpern Paul said she would have liked to have heard more specific details, especially from Romney on the issue of healthcare coverage for people with pre-existing conditions. While the former governor has said more than once that he does not want people with pre-existing conditions to be denied access to coverage, he has not laid out how he would pay for such a measure. "And I was hoping to hear an answer tonight," Halpern Paul said.
The candidates will meet for the final debate Oct. 22 at Lynn University in Boca Raton, Fla., to discuss foreign policy.