FL Senate panel to feds: No!

Mar 18, 2010

By Jim Saunders
 3/19/2010 © Health News Florida

With a congressional vote looming on federal health-care reform, Florida Republicans have brought the political battle to Tallahassee.

The Senate Judiciary Committee --- mirroring an effort by Republicans in other states ---approved a proposal (SJR 72) Thursday that would seek to exempt Floridians from having to comply with federal requirements that they buy health insurance.

Attorney General Bill McCollum, a Republican candidate for governor, also renewed his vow this week to launch a legal challenge against the reform plan if it passes.

But Democratic state Sen. Dan Gelber blasted the efforts to short-circuit the reform measure, which could come up for a vote in the U.S. House this weekend. Gelber said state lawmakers should "quit these ideological frolics'' and focus on the nearly 4 million Floridians who lack health insurance.

"The truth of the matter is, we have a crisis in this state,'' said the Miami Beach Democrat, who is running for attorney general this year. 

Sen. Carey Baker, a Eustis Republican who sponsored the proposal approved by the Judiciary Committee, said he is trying to protect "basic health-care freedoms.''

Both Baker and McCollum are targeting part of the reform package that would require most people to be insured or pay a fine. The Baker proposal says, in part, laws may not force "any person, employer or health-care provider to participate in any health-care system.''

"It just says that at the end of the day, Floridians have a right to choose for themselves whether to participate,'' Baker said.

The proposed requirement to buy insurance is a linchpin of President Obama's effort to overhaul the health-care system, because economists and insurance underwriters say that otherwise young and healthy people would not buy coverage until they became ill or injured. That would leave only sick people in the insurance pool, making coverage less and less affordable.

To make coverage affordable for middle- and lower-middle income families who can't get group coverage, the Obama proposal provides subsidies for them to use an "exchange" to choose coverage. The Congressional Budget Office released figures this week saying the proposal would cover 31 million uninsured Americans. 

Republicans are trying to block passage of the bill in Congress. If they are unsuccessful there and Obama signs it into law, the action will swing to the states. Legislation similar to the Florida proposal has been filed in at least 36, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures.

As an example, Idaho's Republican governor signed a bill Wednesday that would require the state to file a lawsuit against the federal government if an insurance mandate passes.

McCollum also is threatening to file a constitutional challenge to such a mandate. He released a legal analysis this week that said Congress doesn't have the authority to require health-insurance coverage.

"Never before has Congress compelled Americans, under threat of government fines or taxes, to purchase an unwanted product or service simply as a condition of existing in this country (a 'living tax'),'' the analysis said.

Gelber called McCollum's threatened lawsuit "shortsighted and nothing more than rank demagoguery.''

The Senate Judiciary Committee voted 6-3 along party lines Thursday to approve Baker's push to exempt Floridians from the requirement. The measure is a proposed amendment to the Florida Constitution, which means it ultimately would have to be approved by voters if it passes the Legislature.

Gelber, one of the dissenting votes, questioned its legality --- an issue that also has been raised in other states. He pointed to the Supremacy Clause of the U.S. Constitution, which could override any effort by a state to exempt its residents.

A Senate staff analysis raises the possibility that Baker's proposal could be challenged legally. If a judge determines that the proposal conflicts with federal law, it could be "deemed unconstitutional,'' the analysis said.

--Capital Bureau Chief Jim Saunders can be reached at 850-228-0963 or by e-mail.