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For more than 25 years, the primary goal of those trying to fix the U.S. health system has been to help people without insurance get coverage. Now, that may be changing, as NPR's Julie Rovner reports, some Republicans are trying to steer the debate away from the problem of the uninsured.

JULIE ROVNER, BYLINE: The shift in emphasis by top Republicans is subtle, but it's noticeable. Take this exchange between Fox News Sunday host Chris Wallace and Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell earlier this month, just after the Supreme Court upheld most of President Obama's health law.

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CHRIS WALLACE: What specifically are you going to do to provide universal coverage to the 30 million people who are uninsured?

SENATOR MITCH MCCONNELL: That is not the issue. The question is how can you go step by step to improve the American health care system? It is already the finest health care system in the world.

WALLACE: But you don't think the 30 million...

MCCONNELL: What our friends on the other...

WALLACE: But you don't think the 30 million people who are uninsured is an issue?

MCCONNELL: Let me tell you what we're not going to do. We're not going to turn the American health care system into a Western European system. That is exactly what is at the heart of Obamacare.

ROVNER: And McConnell isn't the only top Republican who is saying that covering the uninsured should no longer be the top priority. Here's Utah Senator Orrin Hatch in a recent speech to the conservative American Institute.

SENATOR ORRIN HATCH: Conservatives cannot allow themselves to be browbeaten by failing to provide the same coverage numbers as Obamacare. To be clear, it is a disgrace that so many American families go without health insurance coverage. But we cannot succumb to the pressure to argue on the left's terms. This is how the left identifies the issue.

ROVNER: So if getting more people coverage isn't the goal, what is?

DEAN CLANCY: Your goal should be reducing costs, and expanding individual liberty.

ROVNER: Dean Clancy is legislative counsel for FreedomWorks, a group that supports and trains Tea Party activists. But Clancy says reducing costs doesn't mean doing nothing, even though that's what many of the people he talks to would prefer.

CLANCY: What they don't often understand is the government has already screwed it up significantly, such that we have no choice but to try to reform, to undo the wrong things we've done.

ROVNER: Politicians haven't come to this idea on their own. They're being urged like people like Clancy and Michael Cannon. He's head of health policy at the libertarian Cato Institute. He's long questioned the idea that expanding insurance coverage should be the holy grail of health reform.

MICHAEL CANNON: The idea that the government should guarantee health insurance to everybody passes as really gospel in health policy circles without any serious consideration, without any sort of examination of why is it that we want people to have health insurance, is health insurance the best way to serve those goals, could there be lower-cost ways of achieving those goals.

ROVNER: Cannon says people need to have the freedom not to have insurance if the marketplace is to function properly.

CANNON: Because if they don't have that freedom, if the government is requiring them to purchase health insurance, either from a private company or the government, then the government gets to define what health insurance is, and that stifles a lot of innovation in the health insurance and health care delivery markets, and we're suffering under that sort of regulation right now.

ROVNER: But supporters of the health care law say arguments about making the marketplace function better are all a big smokescreen.

ETHAN ROME: Every once in a while, the Republicans have rare moments of honesty. And so when they say that they don't want to expand coverage, this is one of those rare moments.

ROVNER: Ethan Rome runs Health Care for America Now, an advocacy group working to promote and defend the health law.

ROME: They look around and they see middle-class families and others in need, and what do they want to do? They want to give tax breaks to the super rich. That's who they are and what they do. And I think that's why they're starting to talk about how they don't want to expand coverage. They at least want to be truthful about a couple of things. And those are the ways in which they want to abandon certain populations and be frank about it.

ROVNER: Other analysts see a more calculated political tactic, however. They say Republicans are practicing class warfare. They're painting the health law as requiring who people who already have health insurance to help pay for those who don't. It will be up to supporters to demonstrate how the law is helping those who do have insurance keep it and pay less. Julie Rovner, NPR News, Washington.

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