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March 2, 2010
TOPEKA Republicans and Democrats were sharply divided Tuesday over a proposed constitutional amendment that sponsors said would let federal officials know Kansans don't want to be told by the government that they must buy health insurance.
On a 12-9, party-line vote, the House Health and Human Services Committee voted to recommend House Concurrent Resolution 5032 favorable for passage.
The measure could now go to the full House. It would need two-thirds approval there and in the Senate before being added to a statewide ballot to be decided by voters. An identical measure was passed without recommendation earlier this session by the Senate Public Health and Welfare Committee but remains lodged in the Senate Judiciary Committee.
If approved by the Legislature and voters, the amendment would add a new article to the Kansas Constitution stating that no law or rule passed after August 2009 could "compel" anyone to participate in "any health care system or purchase health insurance."
The measure is similar to one introduced in dozens of other states mostly by conservative Republican lawmakers alarmed after preliminary passage of Democratic bills in Congress that would require people who could afford it to buy health insurance or pay a tax penalty. For people who couldn't afford insurance, the Democratic bills included subsidies to aid in its purchase.
Critics of the so-called individual mandate said it would mean an unprecedented intrusion by government into the realm of health care.
Supporters of the mandate, including for a while the health insurance industry, said it was necessary if other reforms, including eliminating insurers' ability to deny coverage for pre-existing conditions, were to be made workable and health care costs reduced.
Rep. Ann Mah, D-Topeka, said she didn't understand the fuss over the potential requirement or the claim that it would be unprecedented given that working Americans already are mandated to pay a withholding tax to support the Medicare system whether they are enrolled in the program or not.
Congress in any event has yet to approve a health reform plan with or without a mandate. But talk radio hosts and others have kept concerns about the individual mandate alive in the public mind since August last year when Tea Party protesters and allies made scenes at congressional town hall meetings.
Several people who attended Tuesday's hearing were members of the Topeka 912 Project, a movement which was launched nationally by conservative radio talk show host Glenn Beck.
Several of them wore bright green stickers that read "HR 5032 Healthcare Choice NOW"
The committee had already heard testimony on the measure, so members debated its merits among one another without taking additional public comment.
Committee Chair Brenda Landwehr, R-Wichita, a co-sponsor of the proposal, occasionally called on the expertise of Sarah McIntosh, a political science instructor at Wichita State University and supporter of the resolution. McIntosh formerly worked at the Flint Hills Policy Institute, a conservative, Wichita-based think tank.
But most of the committee meeting consisted of lively verbal jousting between Democrats and Republicans.
Democrats faulted Republicans for not knowing what the amendment would accomplish or its full ramifications given that there still is no federal health reform.
Republicans said it would stake out Kansas' independence, reaffirm the primacy of states and help provide legal footing if or when Kansas decided to sue the federal government over health reform.
At one of the more heated points in the debate, three audience members in the front row of the hearing room applauded the comments of Rep. Valdenia Winn, a Kansas City Democrat.
Landwehr immediately admonished the crowd and said any other outbursts from the audience would prompt her to "clear the hearing room."
Despite the burst of excitement at least two people at the back of the room appeared to doze intermittently. It wasn't clear if they were supporters, opponents, or merely indifferent to the proceedings. The hearing room was poorly ventilated and unusually warm and since the meeting followed the lunch hour some struggled to remain alert. The people from the 912 Project stayed quiet but seemed attentive throughout.
Landwehr at a couple of points during the debate suggested that the amendment would protect Kansans against a "single-payer system."
But when challenged by Mah to explain where the resolution referenced a single-payer system, Landwehr withdrew her assertion.
"I won't argue with you," she said.
Mah then asked Landwehr if the amendment could be interpreted in a way that might prevent the state from ever mandating insurance companies to "do away with pre-existing conditions" as reasons for denying a person coverage.
"Possibly," Landwehr responded wearily.
After Mah's string of pointed questions, Landwehr tried to offer an amendment clarifying that the resolution wouldn't affect auto insurance.
But Rep. Peggy Mast, R-Emporia, argued against that saying, "I like this amendment just the way it is."
Apparently most of the other Republicans on the committee did, too, because they voted for it without changes.
The only Republican to vote against the measure was Rep. Jill Quigley of Lenexa.