JEFFERSON CITY — The Missouri House gave preliminary approval Wednesday to a constitutional amendment that seeks to block a government mandate to buy health insurance, taking aim at a key provision in federal legislation to overhaul health care.
The proposed state constitutional amendment would ban penalties or fines from being levied against individuals and employers who opt out of insurance and pay directly for their own health care. Medical providers could not be penalized for accepting direct payments for health care.
Sponsoring Rep. Tim Jones, a critic of the federal health care legislation, said Congress is overstepping its authority. He said the federal efforts fail to address the problems driving up cost and that an incremental approach to changing health policies could work better.
"Like no other time in our nation's history, the federal government has tried to insert itself into an area in which it does not belong to force Missouri citizens and citizens across the country to purchase a product," said Jones, R-Eureka.
Later he added, "This is a privacy issue. It's a civil rights issue. It's a civil liberties issue."
The state constitutional amendment was approved 113-40 and needs another vote in the House before moving to the Senate. If approved by lawmakers, it could appear on the November ballot.
Conservative lawmakers in 33 states have filed similar state constitutional amendments or bills that reject health insurance mandates and legislators in four others have said they plan to file measures, according to the American Legislative Exchange Council — a nonprofit group that promotes limited government that is helping coordinate the efforts.
At issue are separate health care bills approved by the U.S. House and Senate that would impose a penalty on people without health insurance except in cases of financial hardship. Subsidies would be provided to low-income and middle-income households.
The federal bills also would require many businesses to pay a penalty if they fail to provide employees health insurance that meets certain standards, though details and exemptions vary between the House and Senate versions.
But the federal health care efforts face an uncertain future because Senate Democrats lost their filibuster-proof majority in January when Massachusetts elected Republican Scott Brown.
President Obama on Wednesday endorsed a plan from congressional Democrats to pass the health care proposal using a parliamentary move designed to prevent Republicans from blocking a vote. Obama called for extending health care coverage to about 30 million uninsured Americans, banning insurers from denying coverage for the ill, expanding drug benefits for the elderly and giving lower-income people subsidies to help them afford coverage.
Obama's plan would be paid for by raising taxes on upper-income Americans and culling savings from a government health care plan for the elderly.
The Republican-controlled Missouri House this year has already approved a resolution criticizing the federal health care legislation.
Many House Democrats during a day-long floor debate Wednesday endorsed Congress' proposal and said their constituents want health care access expanded. Some likened the debate to the civil rights movement, in which Congress sought to intervene while southern states objected.
"Many states did not want to do civil rights, but the federal government knew it was in the best interest of the country that every state follow that sort of process," said House Minority Leader Paul LeVota, D-Independence.
Other lawmakers said they feared that by adopting a state constitutional amendment, Missourians would be unable to reap any benefits from federal health care legislation.