House scraps bill for exemptions from healthcare mandates
A bill designed to exempt Delawareans from the mandates contained in the recently enacted federal healthcare legislation has been killed.
The House Administration Committee voted three-to-two to prevent House Bill 353 (a.k.a. the Delaware Health Freedom Act) from going to the House floor for a debate and vote.
The Delaware Health Freedom Act specifies that Delawareans are free to choose, or decline to choose, all healthcare services, without penalty or threat of penalty. The bill further directs the state attorney general to enforce the provisions of the act and defend the State of Delaware against challenges to the law.
“This bill was an attempt to do two things I think are of extreme importance,” said the bill’s prime sponsor, State Rep. Deborah Hudson (R-Fairthorne). “First, it sought to preserve Delawareans’ freedom of choice in matters of healthcare.
“Under this bill, our residents could have exercised their free will to join the government plan, continue with their private healthcare coverage, or pay for their healthcare out of their own pocket – without the threat of being bullied into a decision by the federal government. Secondly, it would have defended Delaware’s right to govern its own citizens.”
At least 38 states have filed or pre-filed similar legislation, including the neighboring states of Pennsylvania, New Jersey and Maryland. Three states have already enacted laws (Virginia, Idaho and Arizona) and three states have placed constitutional amendments on the ballot.
Introduced on March 30, the Delaware Health Freedom Act was assigned to the House Administration Committee and kept there for as long as was permissible under House rules. The bill was added to the committee’s May 12 agenda as a late addition, two days prior to its consideration.
Appearing before the committee, Democratic Caucus House Attorney Meredith Stewart said she did not believe Delaware had standing to challenge the federal law. She also maintained that there was a potential “separation of powers” issue because the bill involved the legislature instructing the attorney general’s office (an executive branch agency) to take action on the state’s behalf.
Ron Smith, an attorney for the House Republican Caucus, took issue with both arguments. He said the bill poses no “separation of powers” issue since it allows the attorney general to exercise his discretion in defending the state’s rights.
Regarding Stewart’s other point, Smith noted there have been several cases in the last 15 years in which laws have been struck down because the federal government overstepped its authority. Smith said that protecting the State of Delaware’s sovereign rights was “ultimately what this bill is all about.”
Speaker of the House Bob Gilligan (D-Sherwood Park) challenged Smith’s interpretation, saying the federal government already regulates healthcare through programs such as Social Security and Medicaid. Smith said the new federal healthcare law differs fundamentally from those programs in that it mandates the purchase of healthcare coverage, under the threat of penalty.
“If you’re just born and breathing, you have to have insurance,” Smith said.
“You don’t know that yet because the regulations have not even been written, Mr. Smith,” Gilligan said. “The regs have not been written and you’re making these rash judgments.”
State Rep. Deborah Hudson said Gilligan’s comments supported releasing the bill. She said that, since much of the healthcare law’s implementation will rely on regulations that have yet to be crafted by federal agencies, the Delaware Health Freedom Act would allow Delawareans to make their own healthcare decisions after the implications of the federal law are better understood.
The discussion by the committee seemed to do little to sway any of the members’ expressed opinions, officials said. In a vote split along party lines, Rep. Pete Schwartzkopf, Gilligan and State House Majority Whip Valerie Longhurst (D-Bear) voted against releasing the bill for open debate. State House Minority Leader Richard Cathcart (R-Middletown) and State House Minority Whip Dan Short (R-Seaford) cast votes to allow it to move forward.
“I have some questions, I have some reservations about the separations of powers thing,” Schwartzkopf said after the vote. “I also have some reservations about spending money on a court case other people are already doing.”
Rep. Dan Short said the committee’s decision was disappointing.
“This bill was both about protecting consumers’ freedom of choice as well as our state’s right to make policy at the local level. Keeping this bill in committee shows a lack of courage to openly discuss the philosophical issues raised by this legislation and to cast a vote on the House floor based on its merits,” Short said.
Also disappointed was Bryan Steilkie Sr., Kent County chairman for the 9-12 Delaware Patriots, who carried more than 3,000 citizen signatures to the committee hearing in support of the bill. “What a shame to see the rights of Delaware citizens tramped into the dust,” he said.