On Same Day as White House Visit, Christie Vetoes State Health Care Exchanges

With his state still reeling from superstorm Sandy, New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie paid a visit to the White House today to ask the president for more hurricane relief. That's right, President Obama, whom he toured his state with in the days following the storm, the two looking for all the world like new BFFs.

BFFs without the "forever," perhaps: Today the Republican governor also vetoed state legislation to set up state health care exchanges, from which residents can select a health care plan. The exchanges are required by the Affordable Care Act, aka Obamacare.

The move is largely symbolic, because now the federal government will have to step in to set up exchanges in New Jersey. Christie is not the first Republican governor to make this move. A host of other GOP governors - Nikki Haley (S.C.), Bobby Jindal (La.), Scott Walker (Wisc.), John Kasich (Ohio), Paul LePage (Maine) and Robert Bentley (Ala.) - have all announced that their states would not set up an exchange.

According to a release sent out from the governor's office today, the decision was made with a "careful and thoughtful approach that appropriately considers the best interests of the state's residents and taxpayers."

"In short, I will not ask New Jerseyans to commit today to a State-based Exchange when the federal government cannot tell us what it will cost, how that cost compares to our other options, and how much control they will give the states over this state-financed option. We will comply with the 'Affordable Care Act,' but only in the most efficient and cost-effective way for New Jersey taxpayers," Christie wrote in a letter to the state senate. "Until the federal government gives us all the necessary information, any other action than this would be fiscally irresponsible."

It's unclear if any other topic besides emergency funding for the state came up in this morning's meeting between the governor and the president. (Christie also visited Capitol Hill today, meeting with House Speaker John Boehner to discuss the looming fiscal cliff and hurricane emergency funding.) For much of the 2008 election Christie and Obama were seen as on opposite sides, with t he Republican governor backing Mitt Romney, but when Sandy slammed into his state in October, the New Jersey governor lavished high praise on the president just days before the election saying his commitment in the wake of the storm was "outstanding."

The letter makes it clear that Christie could be open to changing his mind in the future if he gets his questions answered.

"My decision today should not be interpreted as foreclosing future consideration on this matter," Christie's letter reads. "In fact, the federal government has provided states with the flexibility to amend their Exchange selection in subsequent years. Moving forward, I welcome further guidance from the federal government so that New Jersey can make a fully informed decision as to the best course of action for our residents and businesses."

Under the law, if a state opts not to set up the exchange, the Department of Health and Human Services will step in and set up the exchange. That would not likely be well-received by Republican governors either, but the law forces each state's executive to make a decision one way or the other.

How exactly will those exchanges be set up? Renee Landers, a professor of law at Suffolk University Law School in Boston who has written extensively on the ACA, says those mechanics are still being worked out, but the Department of Health and Human Services could set up regional exchanges, which might not work for New Jersey since it's part of the blue Northeast. The deadline for governors to opt in or out is quickly approaching, Dec. 14.

"I think it's funny that governors who purportedly want to be in charge of their own fate don't want to be involved [in setting up the exchanges]," Landers said. "But then they have no responsibility for things that go wrong and there will be things that go wrong, mistakes will be made and they will have deniability."