In a pre-emptive strike on national health care, conservative state lawmakers and representatives of the "tea party" movement on Tuesday proposed changing the state Constitution to exempt Kansas from federal health insurance mandates.
"This is about ... preserving (patients') right to make their own individual decisions on health care and protecting the doctor-patient relationship, so that the physician and the patient together can make the best decisions," Rep. Peggy Mast, R-Emporia, said at the Wichita kickoff for the proposition.
State Democrats fired back that lawmakers are themselves covered by government-paid insurance. Party executive director Kenny Johnston called the proposition "a stunningly eager act of partisanship and hypocrisy."
At issue is a resolution called the Health Care Freedom Amendment, which will be introduced in the January session of the Legislature.
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The proposition, which would have to be approved by two-thirds of the Legislature and a majority of voters, seeks to nullify any law passed by the federal government that would require individuals to buy health care or force employers to provide it.
Employer and individual health insurance mandates are being considered in Congress as part of comprehensive national health care legislation.
The proposed amendment also would guarantee that health care providers could continue to receive direct payment from patients without being liable for fines or penalties.
Sen. Mary Pilcher Cook, R-Shawnee, said national health care reform legislation will be "harmful to Kansans, robbing them of their liberty to make their own health care decisions without government interference."
Mast and Pilcher-Cook were joined Tuesday by Republican Reps. Brenda Landwehr of Wichita and Steve Brunk of Bel Aire, and Sens. Dick Kelsey of Goddard and Tim Huelskamp of Fowler.
Landwehr, chairwoman of the House Health and Human Services Committee, said more co-sponsors will be announced as the session nears.
Within hours of Tuesday's announcement, the state Democratic Party set up an online petition opposing the proposition.
"Calling their bill the Health Care Freedom Amendment is horribly misleading," Johnston said in his statement. "In reality, they're proposing the Freedom from Health Care Amendment."
Sen. David Haley of Kansas City, the ranking Democrat on the Senate health committee, said he doesn't think the amendment will pass.
"I don't think they have the constitutional majority," he said. "I'm pretty sure they don't have it in the Senate, and who knows what's going to happen in the House."
He said he considers it election-year posturing to cement the conservative base for Republicans.
"The usual hot-button issues like abortion have lost their punch," he said. "What else are they going to do, in this painfully red state, to say they're doing something at the state level to justify why they should be re-elected?"
Ernest Kutzley, advocacy director of the Kansas chapter of the American Association of Retired Persons, said AARP supports universal health care coverage and will be taking a careful look at the amendment.
"We really believe this is the time to provide health care for all Americans, including Kansans," he said. "It's really too important to become a turf war between the state and the federal government."
Lawmakers proposing the amendment were joined by representatives of several groups active in recent tea party protests, including Derrick Sontag of Americans for Prosperity, Lynda Tyler of Kansans for Liberty and Larry Halloran of the Wichita 9-12 Group.
Opposing the "public option" inserted into Senate health care legislation Monday, Sontag said giving citizens the choice of government-run health insurance would be unfair to insurers.
"We don't want a public plan that is heavily subsidized by the taxpayer going up against a private sector that would be overtaxed and over-regulated," he said.
Landwehr acknowledged that the amendment won't directly address problems with the existing system, such as people with pre-existing health conditions who can't buy insurance.
"What we're doing is standing up and saying Kansas does have has its own sovereignty" and a right to make its own decisions on health care, she said.
She said her committee will hold daylong discussions with doctors, patients and others to address problems in the health system, especially costs.