The Democratic-controlled Senate in Virginia sent the Obama administration a strong message this week when it passed a trio of bills that would make it illegal to require citizens to purchase health care coverage – the vote reflecting an emerging national trend where states are exploring ways to opt out of whatever federal health care mandates might be passed on Capitol Hill.
In Virginia, the three bills passed the Virginia Senate 23 to 17. They won the support of all 18 Republican members of the chamber and five Democrats. The result was celebrated as a victory by "Tea Party" members and ran contrary to Obama’s call to arms in the State of the Union Address in which he implored Democrats not to "run for the hills" on reform.
"It’s pretty clear that a public option or federal health care bill that increases mandates on states for Medicaid payments or takes money from Medicare or otherwise undermines the ability of states to be able to control their own healthcare plans is not in the best interest of Virginians," Republican Gov. Bob McDonnell said after the vote. "Until the Federal Government makes a final decision on what, if any, health care reform they will pass, I think it’s hard to say what impact it will have on Virginians."
He added, "I think the General Assembly is doing what they believe is right for the citizens of Virginia. And, like them, I oppose these broad, costly, federal mandates that undermine the ability of Virginians to create more access at less cost."
Virginia is not the only state angling to free itself from federal mandates that might be coming down the legislative pike.
Richard Cauchi, Director of The National Conference of State Legislatures’ Health Program, says members of at least 30 state legislatures are pushing proposals that seek "to limit, alter or oppose selected state or federal actions, including single-payer provisions and mandates that would require purchase of insurance."
While the bill language varies, he says "in general the measures seek to make or keep health insurance optional, and allow people to purchase any type of coverage they may choose."
For example, a New Hampshire lawmaker is pushing a measure that would bar any Medicaid expansion unless the federal government picks up the tab or it is approved by the New Hampshire legislature, Cauchi says.
Meanwhile, several states a following in the footsteps of Arizona by proposing state constitutional amendments that, according to Cauchi, are similar to the referendum going before voters of the Grand Canyon State in November. That reads: "To preserve the freedom of all residents of the state to provide for their own health care … A law or rule shall not compel, directly or indirectly, any person, employer or health care provider to particiapte in any health care system."
Should voters approve the constitutional amendment, Cauchi says, it "could block future state health reforms and at least raise questions about some features within future federal health reforms."
Not only does the trend not bode well for President Obama’s push to overhaul the health care system, but it also hints at how far public opinion has since the presidential election in 2008. Obama won Virginia with nearly 53 percent of the vote and won New Hampshire with 54 percent of the vote.
Since then, Obama’s honeymoon has been short-lived. Voters have become increasingly upset about unemployment, the lack of jobs, and the uncertainties that go along with a possible health care mandate.
That outraged surfaced in the recent Virginia and New Jersey gubernatorial elections in which Republicans bested their Democratic counterparts. It served as a reminder of just how fast national and state political climates can change.
That point was driven home this week in Richmond when five Senate Democrats from swing districts voted in favor of the three bills targeting federal health care reform efforts.
Among them was state Sen. Charles Colgan, the longest serving member of the state Senate who represents a district on the southern edge of the Northern Virginia suburbs that up until recently had strongly supported Democratic candidates, including Obama.
In fact, without Colgan, the proposals might have died.
Last month, Colgan’s vote in the Commerce and Labor Committee allowed the three plans to advance to the Senate floor on 8 to 7 vote.