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Opt-out bill passes House panel

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By Jim Saunders 
4/15/2010 © Health News Florida

Trying again to find a way to fight federal health-care reform, a House panel today approved a new bill declaring Florida's "public policy'' is that government should not force people to buy health insurance.

The bill comes a week after the panel's chairman --- raising constitutional questions --- scuttled another House proposal that sought to exempt Floridians from a key part of the federal reform law.

Under the new measure, the attorney general would have the power to carry out the public policy by arguing in court on behalf of individual Floridians whose "constitutional rights may be subject to infringement by an act of Congress respecting health insurance coverage.''

Republican Attorney General Bill McCollum filed a lawsuit last month on behalf of the state, contending in part that the government can't force people to buy insurance and impose financial penalties if they don't comply --- known as the "individual mandate'' in the federal health law.

Bradenton Republican Bill Galvano, chairman of the House Rules & Policy Council, acknowledged that McCollum didn't need the new House bill to challenge federal health reform in court. But with the bill declaring a public policy and making clear McCollum can act on behalf of individuals, Galvano said it could "bolster'' McCollum's case.

"It's just another tool in the toolbox,'' said Joe Jacquot, McCollum's chief of staff who watched Galvano's council approve the bill this morning.

Democrats, however, questioned the need for it. "I don't think we should be in the business of passing laws that aren't necessary,'' said council member Jim Waldman, D-Coconut Creek.

Key West Democrat Ron Saunders, another member of the panel, said Wednesday that Republicans planned to use the council meeting to "demagogue.'' Along with the health-reform issue, the council also took up a proposal that would ask Florida voters in a non-binding referendum whether the federal government should have a balanced budget without raising taxes.

"Most of it (the House legislation) is just b.s.,'' Saunders said Wednesday.

The partisan battle about health reform that enveloped Washington for months has trickled down to Tallahassee and dozens of other state capitals. Republicans have looked for ways to fight the reform law legally and politically.

GOP lawmakers have repeatedly railed against the individual mandate during this year's legislative session, arguing that it infringes on "liberty.'' The federal health law, passed by Congress without any Republican support, comes as nearly 4 million Floridians lack health insurance.

As an example of the tenor of the legislative debate, the state House majority office sent an e-mail to reporters just minutes after today's council vote approving the bill.

"This Washington backed mandate will raise taxes, kill jobs, increase deficits, cut Medicare and expand Medicaid," Majority Leader Adam Hasner, R-Boca Raton, said in the e-mail. "I applaud the passage of this important measure and commend General McCollum for standing up for Floridians’ rights and opposing Washington’s invasive new policies and unconstitutional mandates." 

The vote came a week after Galvano, a lawyer, blocked another House proposal that sought to allow Floridians to opt out of the individual mandate.

The new bill is similar to an amendment that House members tacked onto a life-insurance bill last week. But Democrats immediately launched a procedural challenge against the amendment, arguing it shouldn't be allowed because it had nothing to do with the life-insurance issues. 

By creating the new bill, House leaders avoid that procedural issue. The bill says, in part, that consistent with the "consitutitional liberties of Floridians, it is hereby declared the public policy of this state that no person may be compelled by federal, state or local government to purchase health insurance or health services.''

The bill, however, includes some exceptions. For instance, it would allow the state to continue requiring motorists to buy personal-injury protection coverage as part of the no-fault auto-insurance system. 

--Capital Bureau Chief Jim Saunders can be reached at 850-228-0963 or by e-mail at jim.saunders@healthnewsflorida.org.