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Pennsylvania Lawmakers Mine Discontent on Health-Care Law

March 20, 2012

Larry McNeilis, of Pittsburg, Pennsylvania, rallies during a "Code Red" rally to oppose the health care reform 'Obamacare' on March 20, 2010 in Washington. Photographer: David Rogowski/MCT/Landov

Larry McNeilis, of Pittsburg, Pennsylvania, rallies during a "Code Red" rally to oppose the health care reform 'Obamacare' on March 20, 2010 in Washington. Photographer: David Rogowski/MCT/Landov

Pennsylvania (STOPA1) legislators are poised to become the latest to offer voters a chance to say yes or no to a key part of President Barack Obama’s health-care overhaul, under challenges that have spread nationwide.

A measure pending in the state Senate would let citizens ban laws forcing people to obtain health insurance, except under court order. The constitutional amendment proposed by the bill may go on ballots as soon as next year if lawmakers pass it and Republican Governor Tom Corbett signs the measure.

Legislators in 23 states are pushing similar proposals, while voters already have passed such amendments in Arizona, Ohio and Oklahoma, according to Richard Cauchi, program director with the Denver-based National Conference of State Legislatures. Four more have put the issue on November ballots, he said. The moves are helping to keep a political spotlight on the health- care law even as Republican presidential contenders pledge to repeal it and the U.S. Supreme Court is poised to review it.

“It’s one of the biggest issues in the presidential campaign, the Supreme Court has it under review -- how can it not be seen in any other way?” said Terry Madonna, who directs the Franklin & Marshall College Poll and teaches politics at the school in Lancaster, Pennsylvania. “You think this would have come up under any other circumstance?”

High Court Arguments

Arguments will begin March 26 before the U.S. Supreme Court over challenges to the 2010 Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act, including requiring most Americans to obtain insurance. Pennsylvania is among 26 states that have sued, saying Congress overstepped its authority. Some states claim the law coerces them to follow federal policy with threats to withhold Medicaid funds.

The high court’s consideration marks the first time it has weighed a president’s signature legislative initiative while he is running for re-election. A ruling may be made in June.

If the insurance mandate is upheld, bans in Arizona and elsewhere would be moot, under the U.S. Constitution’s supremacy clause, which lets federal statutes preempt states, said Kevin Walsh, who teaches constitutional law and judicial power at the University of Richmond Law School in Virginia.

State measures on the issue “have a principal effect of expressing opposition as a matter of policy,” Walsh said by telephone. “That can be a powerful signal to the politicians who are elected by the people of that state.”

Issues May Remain

Even if the states lose their challenge to the insurance mandate, issues tied to the law will remain, such as requiring health plans to provide contraceptive care, said Pennsylvania Senate President Pro Tempore Joe Scarnati, a Republican from Brockway. He introduced the bill for an amendment to bar mandatory insurance. His party controls the Legislature.

States that support such bans can send a “great message,” he said.

“We could easily see a move by states and a national move to overturn the court in a constitutional amendment,” Scarnati said by telephone. “I believe many people across the state want to be able to put their mark down on this and be able to go to the polls and tell Congress and the courts and President Obama just what they think of his health-care plan.”

The number of telephone calls and e-mails -- mostly negative -- received by his office on the health-care overhaul in recent months has surpassed the level just after it passed, Scarnati said. That’s partly because of this year’s elections, he said. Three leading Republican presidential candidates have said they would repeal the law.

Model Measure

The business-backed 2010 Arizona ballot measure is held up as a model for other states by the American Legislative Exchange Council, a nonprofit organization in Washington that promotes limited government. The group drafts measures that lawmaker members can use to craft bills of their own. A graphic on its website indicates action on similar initiatives has been taken in 44 states.

In November, Ohio voters by a 66 percent to 44 percent margin passed a constitutional amendment with wording similar to Arizona’s, saying that no law can compel a person, employer or health-care provider to participate in a health-care system. Supporters touted it as sending a signal to lawmakers.

While Scarnati’s proposal is also similar to those in Arizona and Ohio, he said he didn’t speak to anyone at the legislative exchange council about it. His measure would let voters limit consumer choice without helping 1.4 million uninsured residents who want coverage, said Athena Ford, an organizer in Philadelphia for the Pennsylvania Health Access Network, a coalition of groups that supports the federal law and opposes the proposed amendment.

“There is a lot of confusion” about what’s in the federal overhaul, Ford said by telephone. As people learn more, they support its provisions, “because everyone will use the health- care system at some point in their life and everyone needs access to quality health care,” she said.

To contact the reporter on this story: Romy Varghese in Philadelphia at

To contact the editor responsible for this story: Mark Tannenbaum at

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