By Emily Stephenson
WASHINGTON (Reuters) - Republican presidential candidate Marco Rubio, seeking to win over conservative voters, told Reuters he was the only one running with a victory against President Barack Obama's signature health law.
Rubio, a U.S. senator from Florida, has touted his effort to prevent what he called a potential taxpayer bailout of insurers as his rivalry heats up with U.S. Senator Ted Cruz of Texas, a chief critic of the 2010 Obamacare law.
In an interview late Tuesday, Rubio said his battle over the little-known provision in the law separates him from the other Obamacare critics running for president, including Cruz.
"Whether it's him or anybody else, everybody running for president on the Republican side wants to repeal Obamacare," Rubio said. "I'm the only one running that's actually ever scored a victory against Obamacare."
Congressional Republicans have voted numerous times to repeal the health law, which required Americans to have insurance or pay a penalty. Senate Republicans passed a bill to gut the reforms last week, though Obama likely will veto it.
Cruz argues the November 2016 presidential election should be a referendum on the Affordable Care Act, the law's formal title. He says he is the candidate who has fought hardest against it, referring to his role in a 2013 battle in Congress that led to a government shutdown.
Rubio and Cruz came in second and fourth, respectively, in a recent Reuters/Ipsos opinion poll, well behind front-runner Donald Trump.
The two have increasingly been at loggerheads over immigration and national security. Many Republican observers predict that if outsider candidates Trump and retired neurosurgeon Ben Carson flame out, the Republican race could come down to Cruz versus Rubio.
On Obamacare, Rubio and Cruz agree that they would repeal it as president, and both voted last week to gut the law. Rubio said it was unlikely to happen with Obama in office.
"In the interim, I think we should all agree that we shouldn't be using taxpayer money at the tune of over $2 billion to subsidize and bail out insurance companies," he said.
At issue is a provision to support online marketplaces, or exchanges, where consumers compare competing plans and purchase individual insurance. The 2010 law included support for insurers that offered plans on exchanges, including a mechanism to offset some losses.
Rubio argued that so-called "risk corridors" program would lead to taxpayer bailouts of insurers and, in 2014, he pushed a provision through Congress restricting its funding.
As a result, the Obama administration this year said it could pay out much less than the $2.9 billion requested by insurers that saw losses on the exchanges.
Rubio said he saved taxpayers $2.5 billion in bailout money. Some experts disagree, saying a similar program under Medicare is not considered a bailout. Fact-checking site PolitiFact rated his claim "mostly false."
Regardless, some nonprofit insurers that expected to recoup some losses failed. Other, bigger insurers warned about instability if the risk corridor payments are not restored.
UnitedHealth Group Inc <UNH.N> said it might withdraw from the exchanges, citing unsustainable losses.
Rubio said he knew insurers would lose money on the exchanges. He said consumers whose plans failed or who face higher premiums should blame the Obama administration.
"Why should the American taxpayer be on the hook for the failures of a business that participated in a flawed law?" he said. "That's something that should have been made clear from the very beginning for those who chose to participate in it."
(Reporting by Emily Stephenson; Editing by Caren Bohan and Alden Bentley)