Kansas was close Tuesday to joining other states in enacting a law designed to block a mandate in last year's federal health care overhaul requiring most Americans to buy health insurance.
A proposed "health care freedom" law was on Gov. Sam Brownback's desk. Legislators bundled the measure with other proposed changes in regulations for health care providers and approved the package in the last hours of their annual session. Brownback is expected to act on the legislation by Friday.
The "freedom" measure says residents have the right to refuse to buy health insurance and instead pay for health care services directly, adding that they can't be fined or forced to pay other penalties for refusing to buy health insurance. The federal mandate taking effect in 2014 includes tax penalties for most Americans if they don't buy insurance.
"Legislators are standing up for the liberty of Kansas citizens," said Sen. Mary Pilcher-Cook, a Shawnee Republican. "They are the people's voice."
Measures aimed at blocking the federal health insurance mandate have been approved in more than a dozen states, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures.
The Kansas bill's passage is a victory for conservative Republican lawmakers who aligned themselves with the tea party movement in criticizing the federal health overhaul as too intrusive. But tea party adherents had hoped for an even stronger statement, an amendment to the state constitution, and legislators bundled the law with 11 other pieces of legislation to ease its passage.
Some legislators had questioned whether a Kansas law would have any practical effect. They said the federal law -- if upheld by the courts -- would trump any state policy.
"The only way they were going to get it is if it was packaged with things other people wanted," said Senate Majority Leader Jay Emler, a Lindsborg Republican. "There was something in there for everybody."
Brownback, who served 14 years in the U.S. Senate before becoming governor in January, has been a strong critic of the federal health care overhaul, and he supports the "freedom" measure. But spokeswoman Sherriene Jones-Sontag said the governor is carefully reviewing the other provisions in the bill before making a decision.
The bill's 74 pages also revised regulations for dentists, nurses, addiction counselors and emergency medical technicians. Emler said the regulations dealing with EMTs were especially important to rural officials, who feared that hundreds of technicians could lose their certification unless regulations passed last year were adjusted.
The legislation contained so many provisions that House Minority Leader Paul Davis, a Lawrence Democrat who opposed the language challenging the federal health care overhaul, said he wasn't aware that he'd voted for it when he supported the package.
"There are people out there who want to just try to use this as political issue for the 2012 election rather than doing something serious about the health care dilemma we have," he said.
Kansas is among more than two dozen states challenging the health care overhaul in a lawsuit filed in Florida. A federal judge struck down the entire law; President Barack Obama's administration has appealed, and both sides expect the U.S. Supreme Court to ultimately decide the issue.
Even some Republicans argue that if the high court upholds the federal law, then there's nothing a state can do to block it. If the court strikes the law down, they contend, a state law or constitutional provision was unnecessary.
"It was a superfluous piece of legislation that was designed to make people feel good," Emler said. "It doesn't do any harm. It just doesn't do any good."
But Pilcher-Cook said she believes passage of such laws bolsters states' case against the federal overhaul and demonstrates strong public opposition to it.
Nine other states have adopted similar laws, with Virginia as the first, according to NCSL. Arizona and Oklahoma voters amended their states' constitutions to add such provisions, and Utah passed a law that says federal health reforms can't be implemented in that state without the legislative involvement. Montana and Wyoming voters will consider ballot questions next year.
Pilcher-Cook said she'll press next year for legislators to adopt a proposed amendment to the state constitution with language similar to what's in the measure passed this year. The measure would go on the November 2012 ballot if two-thirds majorities in both chambers adopt it.
"That speaks with an even louder voice from the Kansas citizens," she said.