COLUMBUS — Opponents of the new federal health care overhaul say they’ve gathered enough signatures to ask Ohio voters this fall whether the state should amend its constitution to keep people from being required to buy health insurance or face penalties.
The amendment’s backers acknowledge that approval of the measure won’t automatically exempt the state from the mandate in President Barack Obama’s health care overhaul. But they say they hope to use the amendment to legally challenge the law.
A coalition of tea party groups called the Ohio Liberty Council is among the amendment’s supporters who planned on Wednesday to file more than 546,000 signatures with Ohio Secretary of State Jon Husted. They need roughly 385,000 valid signatures for the amendment question to get on the Nov. 8 ballot.
The amendment would prohibit any federal, state or local law from forcing Ohio residents, employers or health care providers to participate in a health care system.
The Obama administration has argued that the coverage requirements rest on a solid constitutional foundation: the power of Congress to regulate interstate commerce.
But critics say that does not give the government the right to direct people to buy specific goods or services.
Last week, a federal appeals court in Cincinnati affirmed the merits of the health care law, agreeing that the government can require a minimum amount of insurance for Americans.
Timothy Jost, a professor at Washington and Lee University law school in Virginia, said unless reversed by the U.S. Supreme Court, the ruling by the three-judge 6th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals already settles the question of whether Ohio residents would be required under the federal law to buy health insurance.
“At this point it serves no legal purpose,” Jost said. “It’s just a political statement.”
Chris Littleton, a co-founder of the Ohio Liberty Council, contends the amendment would provide the best chance for a case over whether the mandate is constitutional. He said it also would ban any future state-passed mandates from being imposed on Ohio residents.
Such amendments are being pushed in other states. Lawmakers in Alabama, Florida and Wyoming are putting similar measures before voters next year, the National Conference of State Legislatures says.
More than 30 legal challenges have been filed over the health care overhaul, some focusing on different issues such as states’ rights.
If the Ohio amendment meets state requirements, voters in the political bellwether could have a chance to weigh in on two divisive new laws this November.
Last week, opponents of Ohio’s new collective bargaining restrictions delivered nearly 1.3 million signatures to Husted’s office. Proponents of the referendum, which would invalidate the entire bill, need just over 231,000 valid signatures to get on the ballot.
Husted’s office has until July 26 to verify both sets of signatures.