TALLAHASSEE — Hours after congressional Democrats passed a major health reform bill, Republicans in Florida's capital opened a broad assault Monday to dismantle the legislation at the ballot box and in the courts.
At issue: the legislation's so-called "individual mandate'' that requires most people to buy insurance or face fines.
Florida Attorney General Bill McCollum, a Republican running for governor, started Monday morning with a promise to join nine other Republican attorneys general from other states to sue over the mandate. Later in the day, Republicans in a House committee passed legislation urging him to sue as soon as President Barack Obama signs the bill into law today.
And in yet another committee Monday, House lawmakers passed a proposed state constitutional amendment, which would need voter approval, to stop the government from directly or indirectly compelling anyone in Florida to buy health insurance.
Called the Florida Health Care Freedom Act, the proposal passed the Health Care Regulation Policy Committee on a 10-3 party-line vote. Republican sponsor Scott Plakon of Longwood said the proposed amendment was designed to stop federal overreach.
"These individual mandates should be offensive to all people who love liberty," Plakon said. "They are anti-freedom, anti-liberty and very likely unconstitutional."
But Democrats like Rep. Yolly Roberson of Miami questioned why Republicans like Plakon were proposing no ideas of their own to reduce the estimated 3.7 million to 4 million uninsured Floridians.
"What I find offensive is not having access to care. It's not being able to afford care," Roberson said. "What I find offensive, as a nurse, is knowing that 20 percent of our population does not have access to care."
With a slight plurality of Americans opposed to the health care bill in recent surveys, the Republican assault has made for good politics for months, as the approval ratings of Democrats and Obama have declined in recent Gallup polls. On Monday, the two Republican candidates for the U.S. Senate, Gov. Charlie Crist and former House Speaker Marco Rubio, both warred by e-mail over who disliked "Obama Care'' more.
The arguments on the campaign trail and in the state House are a sign that the furor over health care is moving firmly to state legislatures; 37 other states are considering or have passed legislation similar to Plakon's amendment, which has already cleared two Florida Senate committees.
Ultimately, the issue appears headed for the Republican-leaning U.S. Supreme Court. As part of the court fight, experts expect previous court rulings about guns, wheat prices, violence against women and medical marijuana to take center stage: All of those disparate topics involved the Constitution's Commerce Clause, which gives Congress the authority to regulate interstate commerce.
Democrats point out that the major health insurance companies operate in numerous states and, by some estimates, health and medicine accounts for a sixth of the U.S. economy. The individual mandate makes sure that everyone will pay into a health insurance system.
But can Congress require a person to buy a private product — health insurance — in the name of the public good and the Commerce Clause?
McCollum says no. States mandate that people purchase car insurance, but McCollum says that's different because it's a requirement made at the state level for a voluntary activity — driving. McCollum said other court cases over the Commerce Clause regulated a person's activity — whether it's growing marijuana or wheat. The individual insurance mandate concerns a person's inactivity — that is, a desire not to buy insurance.
"This is a tax or a penalty on just living. And that's unconstitutional," McCollum said in a news conference Monday morning. "There is no provision in the Constitution of the United States giving Congress the power to do that. So it's the absence of authority that is unconstitutional."
McCollum and Plakon argue that the 10th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution limits Congress. Democrats point out that the Constitution also doesn't explicitly call for Medicare, Medicaid, Social Security or a national bank, all of which were passed by Congress and ultimately blessed by the Supreme Court.
The U.S. Constitution also contains a "Supremacy Clause'' that largely allows federal laws to trump state statutes. So even if Plakon's state constitutional amendment is approved by voters, it might not do anything.
McCollum said he might also challenge another mandate in the health bill: the expansion of Medicaid, the state-federal program for the poor already serving 14 percent of Florida's population. Under preliminary state estimates, the new law could cause Florida's Medicaid population to grow by about 1.5 million people and cost state taxpayers more than $700 million in 2016.
State Sen. Dan Gelber, a Democrat running to replace McCollum as attorney general, criticized McCollum for spending his time threatening to block health reform rather than fixing the problem.
"It's a weak lawsuit at best," Gelber said. "This is all about partisanship."
McCollum said he was standing on principle.
"No politics involved with this whatsoever," he said. "This bill is wrong."
Times staff writer Alex Leary contributed to this report. Marc Caputo can be reached at mcaputo@MiamiHerald.com.