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Published: Tuesday, 3/23/2010

Health reform opponents seek exemption for Ohio

BY JIM PROVANCE
BLADE COLUMBUS BUREAU CHIEF

COLUMBUS — The day before President Obama is expected to sign into law sweeping changes in health care, a group of Ohioans yesterday started a constitutional effort to prevent many of those changes from taking effect here.

The Ohio Liberty Council, essentially the conservative Tea Party movement, filed signatures with Attorney General Richard Cordray to start the process of amending the Ohio Constitution to declare that no law can force an individual, employer, or health-care provider to participate in the reforms.

“This is an amendment to make sure that Ohioans actually have the right to choose what they would like or not like to do in their private lives,'' council President Chris Littleton said.

A petition purportedly containing 3,000-plus signatures was filed with Mr. Cordray, who will decide whether the summary accurately represents what the constitutional amendment would do.

The supporters would then have to gather about 425,000 more valid signatures of registered voters to put the question on the November ballot or, failing that, the May, 2011, ballot.

Groups in Idaho and Virginia have passed similar actions. Variations on the theme have been introduced in nearly 40 states.

In Michigan Monday, activists, legislators, and community leaders started a petition drive to put a measure on the Michigan ballot asking voters whether they want to exempt the state from the federal health-care overhaul.

State Rep. Tom McMillin was joined in the Detroit suburb of Royal Oak by a few dozen opponents of the U.S. health-care bill to start the petition drive.

The rally was held as Michigan Republican attorney general and gubernatorial candidate Mike Cox said he would join other states in a lawsuit challenging the health insurance measure's constitutionality.

It remains to be seen whether a state can use its own constitution to reject a federally enacted law. The “supremacy clause'' of the U.S. Constitution gives the benefit of the doubt to the federal government when it comes to competing laws, at least when it comes to commerce.

“I think it's kind of a toss-up,'' said Lee Strang, an associate professor specializing in constitutional law at the University of Toledo.

“If you'd asked me a year ago, I would have said pretty strongly that this case would be an easy slam-dunk for the Obama Administration,'' he said. “But today with so much protest, a divided vote, and polls that show the public is not behind this health- care reform bill, the [U.S.] Supreme Court wouldn't be as concerned about having a backlash if they struck down the bill.''

Some elements of the reform plan are set to begin within months. Among them are a mandate that insurers stop denying coverage to children with pre-existing conditions and $250 in assistance for seniors to help close the so-called “doughnut hole'' in their Medicare prescription drug coverage.

These would occur before voters could vote on the ballot issue on Nov. 2 at the earliest.

Other elements, those the constitutional amendment most targets, include the mandate that individuals must have health coverage and that employers of certain sizes provide coverage to workers or be penalized.

Maurice Thompson, executive director of the 1851 Center for Constitutional Law, represents the council in its ballot issue effort. While he noted the supremacy clause most often sides with the federal government, “it's not something that's true all of the time.''

“To trump the constitutional amendment that is offered here, the federal government will have to demonstrate that the commerce clause does, in fact, give it authority to mandate the purchase of health insurance,'' Mr. Thompson said. “… This is a standard we don't expect the federal government to be able to meet because [nonpurchase of insurance] by human beings is not commerce. It's not economic activity.''

Kathleen Gmeiner, project director for Ohio Consumers of Health Coverage, said many Ohioans will fight to protect their newfound rights under the health-care law.

“They do not want discrimination again by insurance companies for their children or themselves,'' she said. “They do not want annual caps on how much insurance companies will pay. They want to see the doughnut hole closed. They will stand up against those who seek to overturn it through the ballot.''

The Associated Press contributed to this report.

Contact Jim Provance at:jprovance@theblade.com,or 614-221-0496.



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