By Jason Szep
BOSTON, Oct 5 (Reuters) - When it comes to health care, Republican Mitt Romney loves to take swipes at Democratic front-runner Hillary Clinton.
He calls Clinton's plan, which would require every American to have health insurance, "European-style socialized medicine" and derides it as inspired by "European bureaucracies."
Romney is quick to remind supporters of the U.S. senator from New York's dramatic 1993 failure to reform U.S. health care, which many Americans felt overstepped the role of first lady.
Despite all that, experts say Clinton's plan borrows heavily from one Romney signed into law when he was governor of Massachusetts, which made the liberal state the first in the United States with near-universal health insurance.
That similarity could be fodder for Romney's rivals vying to be the 2008 Republican presidential nominee.
"Hillary's plan is just like the Massachusetts plan. There's not a whole lot of difference," said Jonathan Gruber, a Massachusetts Institute of Technology economics professor who was an adviser to Romney on the state's health care reform law.
Like Clinton's plan, the law Romney signed in April 2006 is underpinned by an "individual mandate" compelling people to buy health insurance. Both plans entail subsidies and government regulations. For those in Massachusetts earning less than the federal poverty level of $9,800, free coverage is provided.
Though it was his crowning achievement as governor, Romney has distanced himself from aspects of the law that offend his party's conservative base, including the extent of the government's role. He has proposed a plan that includes federal tax breaks and incentives to states to help the 47 million uninsured Americans afford coverage.
"What works in Massachusetts may not work in Texas," Romney said at a campaign stop in Salt Lake City, Utah.
And he wrote recently in The Wall Street Journal, "As governor of Massachusetts, I led the fight for reforms that used free markets and innovation, rather than big-government control, to lower health care costs and cover the uninsured."
But health policy experts and independent political analysts dispute that characterization and say Massachusetts' health care costs rose after the law was introduced.
"The plan is much more expensive than it was originally expected. If you have a lot of government mandates, it pushes up the cost," said Sally Pipes, president Pacific Research Institute, a think tank that promotes free-market policies.
State government spending on health care from 2001 to 2007 rose 25 percent in real terms, according to a June report by the New England Healthcare Institute.
The Massachusetts health care law created a new government entity, the Commonwealth Health Insurance Connector Authority, to offer subsidized and unsubsidized polices.
"It could wind up being a point of contention between Rudy Giuliani and Romney in the sense that Giuliani has taken a very different approach to health care, nothing that smacks of government mandates," said Dante Scala, a University of New Hampshire political scientist.
"Republican primary voters tend to shy away from anything smacking of government mandates."
Giuliani, a former New York mayor, leads Romney in national polls, but trails Romney in the early voting states of Iowa and New Hampshire.
Julian Zelizer, a history and public affairs professor at Princeton University, said although Romney's health care law could hurt him with conservatives crucial in the party's nominating process, it could help him in a general election.
"He has to be careful not to distance himself too much from his own accomplishments," he said. (To read more about the U.S. political campaign, visit Reuters "Tales from the Trail: 2008" online at blogs.reuters.com/trail08/)