Health reform amendment thrown off Florida ballot

State lawmakers will introduce a redrafted measure opposing the national law during the next legislative session, with the issue possibly facing voters in 2012.

By Doug Trapp — Posted Sept. 13, 2010

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A proposed Florida constitutional amendment opposing the national health reform law won't be on the November ballot after the state's high court said it was too confusing, but an amendment co-author said he would draft a new version next year.

In a 5-2 decision on Aug. 31, the Florida Supreme Court agreed with a lower court's ruling that the proposed amendment's ballot summary did not accurately characterize the amendment's impact and should not go before voters.

The ballot summary said, in part, that the proposed change sought to "ensure access to health care services without waiting lists" and to "protect the doctor-patient relationship." However, the summary did not explain how the proposed amendment would achieve these and other goals. The amendment also said that Floridians could not be required "to participate in any health system." This provision was an attempt to nullify the national health reform law's requirement for individuals to have health insurance or pay a tax penalty. However, federal law generally trumps state law.

Four Florida residents sued the state to keep the proposed amendment off the November ballot after the required three-fifths of the Republican-controlled Legislature agreed in April to take the issue to state voters.

The Florida Medical Assn. endorsed the amendment. "It is unfortunate that the court's opinion prevents Floridians from voting on an amendment that would give patients the right to choose their own health care plan," FMA Executive Vice President Tim Stapleton said in a statement.

Misleading language

Attorneys representing the state did not dispute that the ballot summary was misleading but argued that the court should place the entire constitutional amendment on the ballot, as it did with a 2004 abortion-related proposal.

The court disagreed. Justice Barbara J. Pariente, who sided with the majority, wrote in the opinion that the health care amendment is several pages long while the 2004 abortion amendment was only a few paragraphs. Therefore, the health reform amendment needs an accurate ballot summary so voters can understand it, she wrote.

The proposed constitutional amendment's sponsors were disappointed. They noted that three of the five justices in the majority allowed the complete text of a 2004 abortion-related constitutional amendment on the ballot, including Pariente.

"The citizens of Florida were robbed today, and we will work hard to ensure it does not happen again," said Florida Rep. Scott Plakon, the House sponsor of the amendment. Plakon said he planned to refile the amendment in time for the opening of the 2011 state legislative session in March.

Florida Sen. Carey Baker, an amendment co-sponsor, said the decision "is a setback." But, he said, "The dialogue will continue, and the Healthcare Freedom Act is one part of a broader conversation on the relationship between the citizenry and government."

Thousands of Floridians expressed their opposition to government-controlled health care during the constitutional amendment campaign, Plakon said. "We will give the people the opportunity to express this belief through the ballot box in 2012. This is by no means over."

Many amendments denied

The Florida Supreme Court has denied several proposed amendments because they were inaccurately worded, said Joseph W. Little, professor of law emeritus at the University of Florida Levin College of Law in Gainesville. Often the authors try to insert confusing wording to make the proposal sound like something more attractive than it is.

"My guess is the Legislature was attempting to create votes for this [amendment]," Little said.

Republican Florida gubernatorial nominee Rick Scott was disappointed by the court's decision, campaign spokesman Travis Burk said in a statement. Scott will support legislation to make it illegal for the federal government to require Floridians to have health coverage, Burk said. "Floridians are rightfully outraged by this unprecedented overreach by the federal government," Burk said.

The Democratic nominee for governor in Florida, Alex Sink, the state's chief financial officer, did not respond to an American Medical News request for comment by this article's deadline.

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Case at a glance

Can Florida residents vote on a constitutional amendment to block the health reform law?

The Florida Supreme Court said no.

Impact: Amendment supporters say Floridians will not be able to express their opposition to mandates and regulations in the national health reform law. Critics say the wording of the proposed state constitutional amendment is confusing and does not accurately represent the amendment's legal impact.

Florida Dept. of State et al. v. Mona Mangat et al.

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