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Senate approves anti-health-law amendment

Senate Republicans today approved a proposed constitutional amendment that attacks a key part of the federal health overhaul, brushing aside Democratic arguments about the roughly 4 million uninsured Floridians.

Senators voted 29-10 to approve the proposal, which is aimed at allowing people to opt out of a future requirement in the law that they buy health insurance or face financial penalties.

The so-called "individual mandate" has been the most controversial part of the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act, which President Obama signed into law a year ago.

The vote followed almost strict party lines, with Tallahassee Sen. Bill Montford the only Democrat supporting the amendment. Another Democrat, Larcenia Bullard of Miami, was absent.

Republicans said the proposal is about Floridians having freedom to make health-care decisions or to choose to go without health insurance. Senate President Mike Haridopolos, R-Merritt Island, took the unusual step of sponsoring the measure.

"This legislation belongs in the constitution because it affirms an individual right,'' said Sen. Don Gaetz, a Niceville Republican who is one of Haridopolos' top lieutenants.

But the badly outnumbered Democrats argued the proposed amendment would go beyond allowing Floridians to opt out of the federal mandate. They said it would also prevent future state lawmakers from trying to address problems such as the huge number of uninsured residents.

"Floridians need and deserve affordable health-care coverage,'' said Minority Leader Nan Rich, a Weston Democrat who has long been a legislative leader on health issues.

The Senate vote came a day after the U.S. Justice Department served formal notice that it will appeal a ruling by U.S. District Court Judge Roger Vinson of Pensacola, who found the law unconstitutional. Florida is lead plaintiff in the multi-state challenge.

Ordinarily, a Senate president does not sponsor such legislation, leaving it to other lawmakers. But Haridopolos, who is running for the U.S. Senate in 2012,quickly shepherded the amendment to a vote on the second day of the annual legislative session.

The House has not started moving its version of the proposed amendment. But the measure also likely will sail through that Republican-dominated chamber.

If approved by the Legislature, the proposed amendment would go before voters during the 2012 elections. It would need approval from 60 percent of voters to be placed into the state constitution.

Lawmakers passed a similar proposed constitutional amendment last year. But the Supreme Court on Aug. 31 blocked it because of misleading wording in a ballot summary.

Haridopolos removed that disputed wording from the new version of the amendment, as he and other supporters looked to make it immune to future legal challenges.

Under the federal law, almost all Americans will be required to have health insurance starting in 2014. But the proposed amendment would try to short-circuit that requirement for Floridians, saying that "a law or rule may not compel, directly or indirectly, any person or employer to purchase, obtain, or otherwise provide for health care coverage.''

Even if Florida voters ultimately approve the amendment, it remains unclear whether they will be able to opt out of the health mandate. That is because the amendment could be subject to a challenge under the U.S. Constitution's Supremacy Clause.

The clause comes into play when state and federal laws conflict and generally favors federal laws.

But Republicans argued today that Washington should not direct the health-care choices of Floridians.

"There are certain areas of life where government simply has no business,'' Sen. Alan Hays, R-Umatilla.

Rich, however, fired back at arguments that the federal government should not be involved in health care.

"I'd like to ask all the Medicare people in our state ... whether they agree with that statement,'' Rich said.

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