Freshman Rep. David Meeks, R-Conway, failed in his effort to revoke the federal government’s mandate to purchase health insurance.
HB 1053 would eliminate the federal requirement for Arkansans to purchase health insurance – a key provision of the national health care overhaul.
Meeks presented his controversial measure before a packed room of supporters and opponents, but on a roll call vote the bill failed 12-7 (The roll call vote is listed at the bottom of this post).
Meeks said that his bill would "preserve and protect the rights of Arkansans" and would eliminate penalties for individuals and employers.
Meeks claimed that according to some estimates, as many as 1.6 million jobs could be lost and it could cost the state an additional $100 million if his bill was not passed.
"We do need health care reform and I hope that this session we can look at ways to do that at the state level," Meeks said.
Arkansas Surgeon General Dr. Joe Thompson urged the committee to let the U.S. Supreme Court decide the issue.
"This bill should be held in committee and let the federal judicial system decide," Thompson said.
Several lawsuits brought by other states are working their way through the federal court system. It is expected that the U.S. Supreme Court will eventually rule on the multiple cases.
Assistant Attorney General Jean Block cautioned that 3 negative outcomes could come from passage of HB 1053.
Block said that:
1) It will virtually guarantee that the State will be sued.
2) It will open the State to the risk of paying huge sums in attorney fees.
3) Enactment of a state law in conflict with a federal law will create confusion and attendant expense for individuals and businesses.
"Without regard to the merits of a policy debate, the Attorney General’s Office respectfully submits that the passage of the HB 1053 would not be in the State’s best legal interest," Block said.
She did say that if the bill becomes law, the Attorney General would defend it in court.
Supporters of the bill primarily claimed that Meeks’ bill would restore their lost freedoms.
Conway resident Paul Calvert from a group called Liberty and Justice said that he only paid $500 a year for his health insurance premiums. He argued that his premiums would rise under the federal mandate.
Calvert also suggested that he thinks the mandate is an overreach of government force.
"I do not believe I have the power to force my neighbor to buy health insurance," Calvert said.
Glen Gallas, the head of the Garland County TEA Party, said the debate is about "what is right and what is wrong."
Gallas suggested that the fear of a lawsuit should not deter passage of HB 1053. "It ought to never be the fear that if someone is going to sue as to whether we should do what is right," he said.
"If we wait, it could be two years before it reaches the Supreme Court. Are you willing to tell everybody… ‘no harm no foul, we’re going to go back to square one?’" Gallas asked.
Bo Ryall, executive director of the Arkansas Hospital Association, argued that the mandate for health insurance was critical to shoring up the state’s medical care system.
"Health care is not something you can just opt out of," said Ryall. "Eventually, you’re all going to need health care whether you like it or not."
Citing $382 million in charity care given by Arkansas hospitals in 2008, Ryall said that uninsured patients cause insurance rates to rise.
"By foregoing health care insurance, you shift the burden to someone else because hospitals have to provide care for the uninsured," he said.
Former State Rep. Dan Greenberg testified on behalf of the bill. He said that action on Meeks’ bill would "give standing to the citizens of Arkansas."
"We don’t have to wait around in legal limbo," he said. "This bill would remove some of the uncertainty we face."
Greenberg also argued that the potential state costs of litigation would be negligible as the state’s Attorney General office is already budgeted. He said that constitutional legal arguments do not require expert testimony and other expensive costs.
After testimony, Rep. Bryan King, R-Green Forrest, made a motion to move Meeks’ bill out of committee with a "do pass" vote. The bill failed on a 12-7 vote. The roll call vote is listed below. Meeks said after the meeting that he might push the bill again, but said he would look at other options to accomplish his goal.
HB 1053 – FOR
Woods – R
King – R
Lea – R
Malone – R
Wardlaw – D
Lampkin – D
Mayberry – R
HB 1053 – AGAINST
Allen – D
Gaskill – D
Hall – D
Hyde – D
Pennartz – D
Wagner – D
Word – D
Perry – D
Leding – D
HB 1053 – NOT VOTING
Tyler (Chair) – D