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Published: Thursday, 6/23/2011

Health-care ballot falls short in Ohio House

Petition backers: Plenty of signatures for referendum

BY JIM PROVANCE
BLADE COLUMBUS BUREAU CHIEF

COLUMBUS -- Lawmakers pushing for a ballot issue to let Ohioans reject federal mandates that they obtain health insurance fell one vote shy Wednesday.

But backers of a petition effort to accomplish the same thing say it's full speed ahead for them. They claim to have more than the minimum of roughly 386,000 valid signatures of registered voters they need to put the question on the Nov. 8 ballot.

"If the [legislative route] doesn't happen, it's not a big deal,'' said John McAvoy of Millbury, state coordinator for The Ohio Project. "We're on it.''

The effort faces a July 6 deadline to file the signatures with the Secretary of State's office. In addition to facing the statewide goal, the group must surpass the threshold of at least 5 percent of all registered voters in 44 counties to qualify for the ballot.

"I know we've got about 75 counties that exceed the 5 percent number,'' Mr. McAvoy said. "We must have 44. We've blown that one away. In one county [Mercer], one third of the registered voters have signed this.''

The proposed Health Care Freedom Amendment would let Ohioans opt out of the federal mandate that they purchase health-care insurance without facing penalties.

Sponsored by Sen. Tim Grendell (R., Chesterland), the legislative resolution to skip the petition process and go directly to the ballot easily passed the heavily Republican Senate last week. But in the House, Republicans brought the measure to the floor knowing they didn't have the one Democratic vote they needed to reach the required super majority of 60 votes in the 99-member chamber.

Rep. John Carney (D., Columbus) argued that the U.S. Supreme Court, not the Ohio Constitution, will be final arbiter of whether the federal government has the authority to force the health-care program on the states and their citizens. Court challenges filed by Ohio and other states are working their way through federal courts and at least one is expected to eventually reach the high court.

"Why are we here in the state of Ohio, the state legislature, dealing with what is clearly a federal issue?'' he asked. "My only answer seems to be that it's about politics.''

The Affordable Health Care Law, signed into law by President Obama in March, 2010, requires all uninsured Americans to purchase policies through the open market or a state-run pooling system. The mandate was a trade-off made with insurance companies to help them pay for other requirements under the law, including a prohibition against rejecting customers with pre-existing conditions.

"This is a state issue,'' said Rep. Barbara Sears (R., Monclova Township), one of the primary sponsors of the House version of the resolution. "I'm not supportive of what is now tagged Romneycare, but I am very supportive of [Massachusetts'] opportunity to choose that as their way of dealing with health care. This is a states' rights issue.''

A second organization, Ohioans for Healthcare Freedom, has employed some professional petition circulators to supplement the signatures gathered by The Ohio Project. They said Wednesday they expect to file roughly 500,000 raw signatures.

The general rule of thumb for such efforts has been to file double the number of required signatures to compensate for the likely invalidation of signatures as they're reviewed by county boards of elections.

"The Ohio Project is strictly volunteers,'' Mr. McAvoy said. "There are no paid people on the project. There's no money coming from outside organizations like labor, insurance companies, or doctor offices. These are volunteers asking for signatures, people who probably printed the petitions at home on their laser printers.''

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



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