01:15 - Source: CNN
The changes to the GOP health care bill

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Pence is essentially President Donald Trump's envoy to a skeptical group of governors

Pence's most important sales job was aimed at one person: Nevada Republican Gov. Brian Sandoval

Providence, Rhode Island CNN —  

Vice President Mike Pence promised governors broader authority to craft their own health care programs on Friday as he sold the Republican health care bill, a measure currently struggling to get the 50 votes needed to pass the Senate.

Pence is essentially President Donald Trump’s envoy to a skeptical group of governors – including Republicans Brian Sandoval of Nevada and Charlie Baker of Massachusetts – who are against the Senate bill, citing its damage to the Medicaid expansion included in the Affordable Care Act.

“I understand and appreciate, as the President does, the concerns that many of you have as we talk about Medicaid in the future going forward. Our administration’s paid very close attention to this issue,” Pence told about 30 governors gathered Friday for the National Governors Association’s summer meeting in Rhode Island.

“Let me be clear: President Trump and I believe the Senate health care bill strengthens and secures Medicaid for the neediest in our society, and this bill puts this vital American program on a path to long-term sustainability,” he said, without noting that the bill also cuts Medicaid spending from current projections.

“Our administration wants you to innovate,” Pence said. “Now is the time to usher in a new era of state-based innovation.”

The vice president touted the Republican health care bill’s option to block grant Medicaid to the states, and increased funding for combating opioid abuse in the revamped Senate bill.

Pence launched into the topic of health care with a broad – and tepidly received – attack on Obamacare.

“President Donald Trump is going to lead this Congress to rescue the American people from the collapsing policies of Obamacare,” Pence said.

“As a former governor myself, I know just how important health care is to each and every one of you as you lead your state,” he said. “The simple truth, though, is that Obamacare is imploding all across America, and working families and small businesses are paying the price every day.”

Pence expanded Medicaid in Indiana

Virginia Gov. Terry McAuliffe, the NGA chairman, got in a dig at Pence while introducing the vice president, noting that he had expanded Medicaid while governor of Indiana.

Pence did so through a version of the program that includes conservative tweaks designed by now-Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services Administrator Seema Verma, who has been working with senators in support of the GOP bill.

“He showed true backbone in Indiana when he expanded Medicaid for his citizens,” McAuliffe said.

It was a clear shot at the Trump administration’s health care push: Federal funding for that Medicaid expansion would be eliminated if Trump and Pence are successful.

Pence thanked McAuliffe for “that warm introduction.”

Then he seized on that jab, noting that he and Verma crafted a plan locally but ran into bureaucratic roadblocks getting former President Barack Obama’s administration to sign off on a waiver for the program.

He said governors wouldn’t encounter such obstacles with the Trump administration, promising governors more flexibility to implement their own visions.

“And we’re going to fight to make that a reality in Washington, D.C. President Trump is dedicated to getting the federal government out of your way,” Pence said.

Meeting Sandoval

Pence’s most important sales job was aimed at one person: Nevada Republican Gov. Brian Sandoval.

Dean Heller, the state’s Republican senator, has closely tied his vote on health care to Sandoval’s stance. And Sandoval has been sharply critical of the bill, warning that it would knock 210,000 Nevadans off of Medicaid.

Pence met individually on Friday with Sandoval and four other Republican governors, including Arizona’s Doug Ducey, Tennessee’s Bill Haslam, Wisconsin’s Scott Walker and Arkansas’ Asa Hutchinson.

HHS Secretary Tom Price and Verma were on hand for the meetings, which came after his afternoon speech.

A source familiar with the Sandoval discussion described it as a “good discussion” and “productive,” though it’s not clear Pence swayed Sandoval.

On Thursday night, Sandoval sounded unwilling to back any GOP effort that would withdraw funding for Obamacare’s Medicaid expansion.

“I’m greatly concerned and very protective of the expansion population,” Sandoval told CNN. “They are living healthier and happier lives as a result of their receiving coverage, and for them to lose that at this point would be very hurtful for them. And it’s about people – this is about people. And 210,000 people in my state.”