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COLUMBUS — The state of Ohio may be headed for a showdown with the federal government over President Obama’s signature health-care law requiring all Americans to acquire coverage.
Secretary of State Jon Husted Tuesday certified a proposed constitutional amendment for the ballot that could allow Ohioans to reject the federal law’s coverage mandates on individuals and employers.
The issue raises the legal question of whether a state may use its own constitution to thwart federal law, but first supporters of the law said they may challenge some of the signatures in the Ohio Supreme Court in an effort to keep the issue from reaching the Nov. 8 ballot.
“We believe that the vast majority of Ohioans agree health-care decisions should be made by doctors and patients and not government regulators,’’ said Jeff Longstreth, of Ohioans for Healthcare Freedom, one of two organizations that circulated petitions for the issue.
Mr. Husted determined that 426,998 signatures survived scrutiny of county boards of elections, exceeding the 385,245 needed to qualify. About 546,000 raw signatures had initially been filed.
To make the ballot, the effort also had to gather signatures equivalent to 5 percent of the number of people who voted in the 2010 gubernatorial election in at least 44 of Ohio’s 88 counties. It qualified in 82. Lucas County was among them with 16,301 valid signatures, more than the number needed.
For more than a year, the Ohio Liberty Council, the closest thing to a statewide Tea Party organization, had pursued the ballot issue. The Ohio Republican Party stepped in late in the process to help put it over the top for this fall’s ballot.
The action places what has been interpreted as a referendum on the Democratic president on the ballot alongside another issue that Democrats have characterized as a referendum on Republican Gov. John Kasich, which is the proposed repeal of a new state law restricting public employees’ collective-bargaining rights.
“The Affordable Care Act contains bipartisan policies for fixing what’s broken in healthcare — 48 million uninsured people, pre-existing conditions banned from coverage, unfair insurance rules canceling coverage on people who are sick, [and] many working people and small businesses not having access to affordable care,’’ said Cathy Levine, policy director of the Universal Health Care Action Network of Ohio.
“But it’s being used as a political football in presidential politics,’’ she said.
The two ballot issues were inextricably linked when state GOP Chairman Kevin DeWine spoke at a Cleveland fund-raiser on Friday. He characterized this November showdown as critical not only to this fall but to 2012 when Mr. Obama will seek re-election.
“If we fail to mobilize this November and defeat this [labor-law] referendum, we will empower the unions and their fatal policies even more,’’ Mr. DeWine told the party faithful. “More important, if we fail to mobilize a strong and successful ground operation, many of our municipal candidates this fall will feel the pain. This is too important of an issue for you to sit on the sidelines and do nothing.’’
The health-care amendment would challenge the individual mandate portion of the law requiring Americans to acquire health insurance through their employers, the open insurance market, government programs like Medicare and Medicaid, or state-run pools in which commercial insurers compete for customers.
Those individual and employer mandates, set to take effect in 2014, are also the subject of multiple lawsuits by Ohio and other states over whether the federal government can mandate the purchase of a product under its authority to regulate interstate commerce. One of those suits is expected to eventually work its way to the U.S. Supreme Court.
The amendment does not address more popular aspects of the law, including a prohibition against insurers rejecting customers because of pre-existing conditions and permission for parents to keep their unwed children on their policies up to age 26.
“This amendment attacks a leg of the stool,’’ Ms. Levine said. “They’ve chosen the most unpopular provision of the law to attack as a way of taking down the whole law.’’
Ohioans for Healthcare Freedom, which will lead this fall’s campaign, used volunteer and paid petition circulators to supplement signatures gathered by The Ohio Project, an all-volunteer effort.
A Quinnipiac Poll of registered voters released last week shows that, while voters seem inclined to reject the Senate Bill 5 labor law, the fight over the health-care amendment is much closer. The poll suggests that Ohioans are divided with 48 percent supporting the amendment and 45 opposing, a statistical tie in a poll with a margin of error of plus or minus 2.4 percentage points.
But when asked whether they agree with a mandate that they obtain coverage or face fines, opposition jumped to 67 percent with just 29 percent agreeing with the mandate.
“When 70 percent of Ohioans disagree with the individual mandate, that’s our potential turnout universe,’’ Mr. Longstreth said. “Seventy percent already agrees with our side.’’
When it comes to the drop-off from there to 48 percent who say they would take the next step of voting to block the mandate, Mr. Longstreth said, “That’s the campaign’s job, to educate that portion of the electorate.’’
The next step will be for the Ohio Ballot Board on Aug. 3 to frame the questions that will greet voters at the polling places.
Contact Jim Provance at: