The Florida Senate passed the Health Care Freedom Act Wednesday, which would place a constitutional amendment on the 2012 ballot allowing Floridians to opt out of the individual mandate provision included in the year-old federal health care law.
Senate President Mike Haridopolos, R-Merritt Island, sponsored the measure, an unusual move for a sitting Senate president.
"This is about freedom, this is about federalism. This is not a unitary government where things just come down on high from Washington. We don't want a one-size-fits-all approach," Haridopolos said.
With all 28 Senate Republicans co-sponsoring the measure, the result was never in doubt, and the 29-10 vote fell along largely partisan lines, with just one Democrat, Sen. Bill Montford of Tallahassee, voting for it. Other Democrats, however, did question the wisdom of cementing an amendment in the state Constitution that would limit future legislators.
"We're talking about our Constitution, the bedrock of this state. We should tread lightly on it," said Sen. Chris Smith, D-Fort Lauderdale.
For their part, Republicans pounced on the slim support of Montford.
Senate Republicans were united in their decision today against the intrusion of the federal Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act and its threats to state sovereignty. With support from across the aisle, the Health Care Freedom Act now moves from the Senate floor," said Senate Majority Leader Andy Gardiner, R-Orlando.
Haridopolos' bill is part of a joint resolution with the House to give citizens in Florida the opportunity to opt out of the individual mandate portion of the Affordable Care Act passed by Democrats in Congress and signed into law by President Barack Obama last year. Whereas Haridopolos helped to hustle the bill through three committees ahead of the start of the regular legislative session, though, the House version has yet to make its first committee stop.
The Affordable Care Act, referred to as "Obamacare" by critics, was the subject of vigorous debate across the country during the summer of 2009, and helped to spur the budding tea party movement.
Since the health care law was passed in 2010, opponents of the law have fought against it in a variety of ways. Almost immediately upon its passing, Florida's then-Attorney General Bill McCollum, later joined by 25 other states, filed suit against the law. Pensacola-based U.S. District Court Judge Roger Vinson, a Ronald Reagan appointee, recently struck down the law as unconstitutional. The Obama administration filed a notice of appeal to the 11th Circuit Court of Appeals Tuesday.
The U.S. Supreme Court, however, is likely to have the final say on the law. If Florida's case or a similar one makes it before the Supreme Court before 2012, it could render Haridopolos' bill moot, even if it passes the House and is signed into law by Gov. Rick Scott.
One of the provisions of the Affordable Care Act most decried by critics is the individual mandate, which imposes penalties or taxes on those who do not obtain health care insurance. Judge Vinson cited that specific provision as unconstitutional in his ruling, and because it was integral to the rest of the law, struck down the remainder of the law.
Republicans in the U.S. House, whose numbers swelled after the 2010 wave election enjoyed by the GOP, also passed a full repeal of the health care law, but it died in the Democratically-controlled U.S. Senate.
Florida Senate Democrats defended the individual mandate portion of the Affordable Care Act Wednesday as the best way to drive down the cost of health insurance.
"In order for the Affordable Care Act to work, we need healthy people to be covered to lower the risk and bring down the costs for insurance," said Sen. Eleanor Sobel, D-Hollywood.
Democrats also noted that the amendment could be rendered void by the Supremacy Clause of the U.S. Constitution, but supporters of the bill said it merely asserts Florida's 10th Amendment rights, which says that powers not granted to the federal government are reserved for the states.
"The Constitution affirms rights -- it's not an empowering document for government, it's an empowering document for individuals. That's what this bill is about," Haridopolos said.
State legislatures have also tried to fight back against the law, and Haridopolos made the case Tuesday that his plan of using a constitutional amendment to do it was the best way, noting that a supermajority of voters would have to pass the amendment to make it effective.
"The voters of Florida will make the final call. Not just a simple majority, but a 60 percent majority will have to pass this," Haridopolos said.
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