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Government, Politics & Issues

Supporters of Missouri effort to opt out of federal health reform may have clear path to ballot

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, Dec. 9, 2009 - State Sen. Jane Cunningham, R-Chesterfield, appears to have locked down at least half of the state Senate's votes in her bid to get a proposal on next year's statewide ballot that would let Missouri opt out of any federal health-care overhaul.

"We want to shield Missouri from unconstitutional mandates,'' said Cunningham at Wednesday's news conference, held in Chesterfield's City Hall, before dozens of allies from the Legislature, health-care community and the public.

"My No. 1 priority this session is this bill,'' said one of those Senate allies, state Sen. Jim Lembke, R-Lemay.

As it stands, Cunningham said she had 17 Senate sponsors and co-sponsors, including herself. That's half of the 34-member Senate. Several Republican members of the state House, including Brian Nieves of Washington and Tim Jones of Eureka, said their companion measure has strong support.

Also apparently on board: the St. Louis Metropolitan Medical Society and the state Medical Association, which voted this week against many of the health-care proposals under consideration by the U.S. Senate.

In a statement issued at the news conference, the St. Louis society asserted that the Senate measure was "fundamentally flawed'' because of high costs, improper "government intrusion'' and "insufficient deliberation."

But U.S. Sen. Claire McCaskill, D-Mo., replied during a conference call with reporters on small-business issues that Missouri opponents of the health-care proposals were premature and "highly irresponsible'' in their criticisms since the provisions of the Senate health-care proposal are still being hammered out.

"They want to opt Missouri out of something ... when they don't even know what it is,'' said McCaskill, calling the effort "pretty dumb.''

She added that it also was unclear if the final version of the Senate bill would allow states to opt out, if the measure doesn't include the so-called "public option,'' which would create some sort of federal health-insurance program to compete with private insurers.

But at Wednesday's news conference, Cunningham and her allies cast their fight -- in part -- as one of state's rights.

"Now is the time for the states to say 'no' to the heavy hand of government,'' said Jones.

Cunningham said at least two dozen states were considering proposals to opt out of any federal health-care changes.

Lembke asserted that revamping health-care coverage was the jurisdiction of the states, not Washington, and that the public should be asking Congress, "Why are you even debating this issue?"

Lembke called the proposed constitutional amendment a "line in the sand."

Aside from the jurisdiction issue, the opponents said their fight also was aimed at protecting the public and patients.

Wednesday's speakers included a nurse and two physicians, Drs. Jeffrey L. Thomasson and George J. Hruza, who said the federal effort was too costly and would likely hurt the quality of health care.

The current system, said Thomasson, is "not perfect, but it's the best in the world."

Hruza, who grew up in what was formerly Czechoslovakia, told of having his tonsils taken out as a child without anesthesia because the government overseers of that nation's system didn't see his operation as necessary.

He asserted that the same could happen in the United States, if health-care changes are approved.

The nurse, Stephanie Rubach, said that federal efforts to expand health care would exacerbate an existing shortage of nurses and would lead to rationing.

Cunningham and her allies noted that their proposed constitutional amendment would not need the signature of Gov. Jay Nixon, a Democrat, to get on the November 2010 ballot.

Assuming it sails through the Legislature, the amendment's backers say that conservative groups are already gearing up for a campaign to persuade Missouri voters to approve it.

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