Ohio Voters to Decide on Opting Out of Health Care Law

COLUMBUS, Ohio -- Voters will get the chance to decide whether Ohio can opt out of the national health care overhaul after the state's top election official said Tuesday that opponents of the federal law have enough signatures to put a constitutional amendment on the Nov. 8 ballot.

Secretary of State Jon Husted determined that supporters of the amendment, which would prohibit Ohio from participating in the federal Affordable Care Act, had gathered 427,000 valid signatures. They had submitted more than 546,000 and needed roughly 358,000 of them validated to make it on to the ballot.

The amendment will find itself on the ballot alongside a measure to repeal a contentious new collective bargaining law. Advocates expect that the two measures will drive people to the polls, which are typically under-visited in off-year elections.

A liberal policy group, however, said it could file a challenge to the health care measure, because it was still finding invalid signatures in its review.

A coalition of tea party organizations, small government advocates and religious groups gathered the signatures to get the health care measure on the ballot and now plan to mount a statewide campaign in support of it.

The coalition has more than 35,000 volunteers, an "army of grass roots support," ready to mobilize to raise money to turn out voters in November's election, said Jeff Longstreth, campaign manager for Ohioans for Healthcare Freedom, a group that played a large role in the petitions.

"This issue would not be on the ballot without the blood, sweat and tears of thousands and thousands and thousands of volunteers," Longstreth said. "The message is clear: keep health care between doctors and patients, and keep bureaucrats out of it."

The measure would change the Ohio Constitution to prohibit any federal, state or local law from forcing Ohio residents, employers or health care providers to participate in a health care system.

It also would prevent the state from enacting a Massachusetts-style health care program, where the state requires a minimum level of insurance coverage.

If passed, the amendment would not apply to any law or rule in effect before March 19, 2010, so as not to prohibit Ohioans for participating in programs such as Medicare.

A spokesman for Ohio Gov. John Kasich told the Associated Press in an email that the governor remains opposed to "federal interference" in Ohio health care, and is pleased with the inclusion of the amendment on November's ballot.

The groups backing the amendment are united by a common belief that government is overstepping its bounds by requiring individuals to purchase health insurance.

"If they can force you to buy a product, where does it end?" Longstreth said. "Can it dictate what you eat? Where you live? Where you can drive?"

The federal mandate goes into effect in 2014, when statewide insurance exchanges are supposed to go in operation. Kasich has said he is proceeding with putting the health exchanges in place in Ohio despite his personal opposition to the Obama plan.

Ohio religious groups oppose the national health care overhaul on the grounds that they say it would require taxpayer funding of abortions. The insurance exchanges allow plans to cover abortions, provided they collect a separate premium from policyholders and that money is kept apart from federal subsidies.

"It is an outrage that taxpayer dollars would go to abortion on demand," said Chris Long, spokesman for the Ohio Christian Alliance. His group plans on using its network of churches across the state to encourage people to vote for the amendment.

Other provisions of the Affordable Care Act - including prohibiting insurance companies from denying coverage based on preexisting conditions, raising the age to which young adults can stay on their parents' insurance plan and allowing states to put more people on Medicaid - have already gone into effect.

The Obama administration has defended the insurance mandate, saying Congress has the constitutional right to regulate interstate commerce.

Supporters of Ohio's proposed amendment say it would encourage the U.S. Supreme Court to come to a quick decision regarding the constitutionality of the federal law, since the U.S. Constitution bars state law from trumping federal statutes.

In five U.S. District Court decisions, three judges upheld the constitutionality of the law, while two struck it down. In the first ruling by an appellate court, the 6th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in Cincinnati held that it was constitutional for Congress to mandate individuals to purchase health insurance.

Opponents of the proposed amendment include liberal groups. They say it continued a misinformation campaign surrounding the health care overhaul by keeping the public agitated instead of educating people on the law's effects.

Those opponents have volunteers independently checking signatures and plan on filing a challenge, ProgressOhio executive director Brian Rothenberg said in a statement.

The group has found that about 20 percent of collected petitions are flawed, according to the release. If more than 20 percent of the 546,000-plus petitions were flawed, the amendment would still have enough signatures to appear on the ballot, but Rothenberg said he expects the number of unacceptable petitions to grow as more are examined.

They have until Aug. 5 to file any challenges. If a challenge is successful, proponents of the amendment would have 10 days to collect more signatures.