Virginia's General Assembly approved legislation that bucks any attempt by President Barack Obama and Congress to implement a national health care overhaul in individual states. But is this anything more than a symbolic move?
The Republican-ruled House of Delegates, with wide Democratic support, voted 80-17 on Wednesday without debate. It is a measure aimed at the Democratic-backed reforms pushed by Obama and stalled in Congress. The vote sends the measure to Republican Gov. Bob McDonnell, who intends to sign it. Virginia is the first state to approve such a measure.
The legality of bills like Virginia's is questionable because courts generally rule that federal laws supersede those of the states.
Thirty-four other state legislatures have either filed or proposed similar measures, statutes or constitutional amendments, rejecting health insurance mandates, according to the American Legislative Exchange Council.
Obama carried Virginia in his historic ride to the presidency in 2008, the first Democrat to do so in a presidential race in 44 years. But since then, the tide has turned. Virginia's Republicans routed Democrats in last year's gubernatorial and legislative elections, partly because of public distrust of Democrats' proposed health care reforms. GOP lawmakers expedited the bill and three others like it as a legislative statement reflecting broad voter discontent over the proposed reforms. Virginia's legislative session is, on average, the nation's briefest, and the bill passed four days ahead of Saturday's scheduled adjournment.
The bill's sponsor, Del. Robert G. Marshall, R-Prince William, and other supporters advocated the measure as a defiant statement to an overreaching federal government. They say it falls under the Constitution's 10th Amendment that deals with state sovereignty. Marshall said he expects the law to be challenged and ultimately decided by the U.S. Supreme Court. "There are limited powers the federal government has. Simply because of the supremacy clause, it doesn't mean anything that the Congress does, in fact, must be enforced at all levels of government in the United States," Marshall said in an interview after his bill won passage.
"It gives the state of Virginia the right to intervene on behalf of individuals should they decide not to pay for insurance and they refuse to pay the fine or they refuse to pay the fee or the tax or whatever you call it," he said.
Separate bills passed by the U.S. House and Senate would impose a penalty on people who don't have health insurance except in cases of financial hardship. The intent of the mandate is to expand the pool of people who are insured and paying premiums and thus offset the increased costs of insuring those with preexisting conditions or other risks.
More distressing for Virginia Democrats was that 21 of their 39 delegates in the 100-member House sided with the GOP in defying the initiative that is their party's national priority. There was no immediate response to a telephone message seeking comment from former Gov. Tim Kaine, now chairman of the Democratic National Committee.
DNC spokesman Alec Gerlach said Virginia's legislation only burdens middle-income families struggling to pay insurance premiums and medical bills, adding "they'll have to answer to those folks on election day."
One opponent of the bill likened its passage to Virginia's failed efforts to defy federal orders to desegregate public schools in the 1950s.
"It's a rejection of the federal role in the provision of health care and an extension of the old idea of interposition," said Del. James M. Scott, D-Fairfax. He was referring to a discredited legal theory that the state had a right to interpose itself to shield residents from some federal directives.