Health care bill awaits Pa. Senate

Amendment would prohibit requirement to buy insurance

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HARRISBURG -- Another effort is under way in the state Capitol to prevent Pennsylvanians from being subject to the federal health care law and its requirement that all residents purchase health insurance.

A measure from Senate President Pro Tem Joe Scarnati, R-Jefferson, would amend the state Constitution to prohibit anyone from being mandated to obtain health coverage or being fined for not doing so.

The proposal gained initial approval, along party lines, from a Senate committee on Wednesday. It now awaits a vote by the full Senate.

A constitutional amendment must be approved in two consecutive legislative sessions and then must pass a statewide referendum vote.

State lawmakers are in the second year of the current session, which means that if the bill is approved this year and again after the new session begins in January, it could be on the ballot as early as May 2013.

Mr. Scarnati acknowledged that it is likely the U.S. Supreme Court, scheduled to hear arguments on challenges to the health care law later this month, will rule on the federal statute's constitutionality before the amendment could gain final approval.

But he said his bill would give lawmakers and state residents a chance to express their views on the insurance requirement.

"I'm not doing this to debate Obamacare; that's not really the issue," he told reporters after the committee meeting.

"What this is really about is giving Pennsylvanians the ability to go to the polls and vote how they feel about being mandated by the federal government on this issue. I think that will be a very clear, clear message to the administration, to Congress and to the courts."

The senator's proposal is the latest approach by state Republicans aimed at ensuring the mandate to purchase insurance will not go into effect here in 2014. Before becoming governor in 2011, then-Attorney General Tom Corbett signed on to one of the multistate lawsuits arguing that the law is unconstitutional.

His spokesman, Kevin Harley, did not return a call for comment on Wednesday about Mr. Scarnati's proposal. Mr. Corbett previously has argued for a prompt Supreme Court hearing to resolve the issue.

Meanwhile, a pending state House proposal from Rep. Matt Baker, R-Tioga, seeks to accomplish the same prohibition as Mr. Scarnati's bill, except through state law instead of a constitutional change. House Republican spokesman Steve Miskin said GOP leaders in that chamber will need to talk with senators about which approach is preferable.

Health care advocates, including the Pennsylvania Health Access Network, have opposed both proposals. They wrote in a letter to senators that reversing the coverage requirement "would result in higher costs, fewer choices and less control over their health care for millions of hardworking Pennsylvanians."

Democrats, such as Sen. Mike Stack of Philadelphia, also spoke out against the bill during Wednesday's meeting. Mr. Stack said legislators should instead be focusing on how to increase access to affordable insurance.

"One way or another we're going to have Obamacare," he said. "The federal law certainly is going to trump state law, so even if the bill passes and is adopted by our voters, people will still be required to buy health insurance."


Harrisburg Bureau Chief Laura Olson: lolson@post-gazette.com or 717-787-4254.


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