Senate debates an 'opt-out' of federal health care bill

Wednesday, March 24, 2010 | 10:52 p.m. CDT

JEFFERSON CITY — The Senate debated a resolution for hours Wednesday that would amend the state's constitution to allow Missourians to exempt themselves from insurance mandate in the health care reform bill signed into law the day before.

Sen. Jane Cunningham, R-Chesterfield, who sponsored the resolution, said the health care reform bill was an encroachment of federal authority on states' rights and Missouri needed to assert itself. She added that the system was reminiscent of the nationalized health systems in Canada and Western Europe.

"This bill is so massive and so foreign, and I pick that word on purpose," Cunningham said, wearing a tie with the American flag printed on it. "I hope we find a way to make Missouri free from it."

Cunningham's resolution, if it passes, would bring the issue to a statewide vote in November. She said she hoped the amendment would pass and trigger a conflict between state constitutions and federal law, which would most likely lead to a court challenge.

"This bill will trigger a U.S. Supreme Court showdown over states' rights," Cunningham said. "State sovereignty, free markets and individual liberty, make no mistake about it, are now at stake."

Sen. Jim Lembke, R-St. Louis, said the health care system would be rife for abuse. He said people would pay a fine of $695, or 2 percent of their income, whichever is more, and then wait until they got sick and could buy insurance with no fear of rejection.

"I don't think people realize how much this system can be gamed," Lembke said.

Democrats unleashed a lengthy filibuster on the resolution for the rest of the session, which was at times combative or also off-topic from health reform.

Sen. Rita Days, D-St. Louis, spent nearly 40 minutes questioning Cunningham, who never looked at Days during the entire discussion, despite standing directly in two rows in front of her. Cunningham said early in the day, when speaking to a different senator, that Senate rules prevented her from turning around.

During the debate, Days asked Cunningham about the options that the uninsured had. Cunningham cited emergency room care being available to all Missourians as an option.

Days questioned Cunningham's assertion that the resolution would "protect the freedom of Missourians to make their own health care choices." Days said it was a misnomer to think that a citizen with no or inadequate health care has freedom to begin with.

"When you look at emergency rooms, they're the only option some people have," Days said. "I don't want them to be confined to an ER for six or seven hours to get care because they have no other choices. How is that freedom?"

Sen. Wes Shoemyer, D-Clarence, compared the opt-out to the uninsured driver cost on car insurance. Shoemyer said this resolution would encourage Missourians to be reckless and not carry insurance. He said this legislation wouldn't get Missouri out of the future funding mandates for Medicare and Medicaid and would force citizens who carry health insurance to, in effect, pay twice.

"And when they're reckless, we have to pay for it," Shoemyer said. "We're still going to be on the hook for the same things we are now, only we will also have to pay for the bad actors who aren't responsible and don't get insurance."

Sen. Tim Green, D-St. Louis, questioned the point of spending an entire day's session debating this resolution.

"We spent the entire day today debating state sovereignty," he said. "I thought that debate was settled during the Civil War."

The senators adjourned without voting on the issue.

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