Florida GOP Targets Individual Mandate In Health Law – Again

Florida Republican lawmakers are reviving a proposed constitutional amendment that takes aim at a major part of the federal health overhaul — with Senate President Mike Haridopolos planning the unusual step of sponsoring the proposal himself.

Rep. Scott Plakon, R-Longwood, made sure the proposed amendment was the first piece of legislation filed in the House for the 2011 legislative session. It was formally filed at 11:58 a.m. last Tuesday, less than two hours after lawmakers gathered in Tallahassee to swear in members and select leaders.

The proposal, if ultimately approved by voters during the 2012 elections, is aimed at allowing Floridians to opt out of a federal requirement that they buy health insurance or face financial penalties. Lawmakers passed a largely identical proposal during the 2010 session, but the Florida Supreme Court blocked it from going on the November ballot because of misleading wording.

David Bishop, a spokesman for Haridopolos, said in an e-mail Monday that the Senate president plans to file the Senate’s version of the proposal. A Senate president has wide-ranging power but typically leaves filing such legislation to other members.

Bishop described Haridopolos’ decision to sponsor the proposed amendment as “rare, not unprecedented.” Haridopolos, R-Merritt Island, has been an outspoken critic of the health overhaul, which the Democratic-controlled Congress and President Obama approved in March.

“He feels strongly voters should have a chance to vote on this amendment and were denied the opportunity by the Florida Supreme Court,” Bishop said in the e-mail.

But Rep. Mia Jones, a Jacksonville Democrat who works on health-care issues, said the proposed constitutional amendment will take up time that could be better spent focusing on how to carry out the federal law. Also, she said the debate will come at the same time the Florida Attorney General’s Office is challenging the law in court.

“I don’t think it (the proposed constitutional amendment) is a good idea,” Jones said. “I think we already have a lawsuit that is going forward.”

The proposal targets what has become known as the “individual mandate” that Congress included in the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act. That mandate will require Americans to have health insurance starting in 2014 or pay penalties.

The amendment would add language to the Florida Constitution that says, in part, “a law or rule may not compel, directly or indirectly, any person, employer or health-care provider to participate in any health-care system.”

Lawmakers approved that same language during the 2010 session and expected it to go on the November ballot. But the Supreme Court on Aug. 31 rejected the proposal because it said lawmakers included misleading wording in a summary that voters would see when they cast ballots.

The disputed summary wording said the amendment would “ensure access to health-care services without waiting lists, protect the doctor-patient relationship (and) guard against mandates that don’t work.” A circuit-court judge ruled — and the Supreme Court agreed — that those broad claims were not backed up in the actual text of the constitutional amendment.

Plakon said Monday he eliminated the disputed summary wording from the 2011 proposal, but otherwise it is identical to the 2010 measure. The legislation is known as House Joint Resolution 1, as proposed constitutional amendments are called “joint resolutions” instead of bills.

The Supreme Court’s decision angered Republican lawmakers, who contend that the federal government should not be able to force Floridians to buy health insurance. Voters in other states, such as Missouri, Arizona and Oklahoma, have already passed similar measures.

Also, in Washington D.C, Republican Sen. Scott Brown of Massachusetts and Democratic Sen. Ron Wyden of Oregon are pushing a proposal that would allow states to opt out of the individual mandate in 2014 if they meet health-system requirements set by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. The federal law currently allows states to seek to opt out in 2017.

Even if Florida voters approve the opt-out constitutional amendment in 2012, it might not end the question of whether they can ignore the coverage requirement. Opponents of the proposed amendment say the Supremacy Clause of the U.S. Constitution bars Florida from choosing on its own to opt out of the federal law.

At a minimum, however, the proposed constitutional amendment would add fuel to the 2012 elections. It would be on the ballot at the same time Obama is expected to seek re-election.

With Republicans holding huge majorities in both chambers of the Legislature, Jones acknowledged that she doesn’t think Democrats will be able to block the proposed amendment from reaching the ballot.

“No, I don’t see a way to stop it,” she said.

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