Jan. 26--OKLAHOMA CITY -- The Affordable Care Act may be a hot debating point in the Oklahoma Legislature again this year.
Two lawmakers have proposed bills to nullify the bill, known as Obamacare, and make it a felony for any federal official to try to enforce it.
Two others legislators have proposed bills mandating state participation in two of the federal law's most controversial elements -- a state health-insurance exchange and expansion of the Medicaid program to include thousands of uninsured poor Oklahomans.
Rep. Mike Ritze and Sen. Nathan Dahm have introduced separate bills that would nullify the federal law in Oklahoma and make any attempt to enforce it by federal officials a felony punishable by up to five years in prison and fines of up to $5,000. Cooperation with those attempts by state officials would be a misdemeanor punishable with up to two years in jail and fines of up to $1,000.
At least two other lawmakers have introduced nullification bills, but the ones brought by Ritze and Dahm -- both Republicans from Broken Arrow -- are the only ones introducing the potential for criminal prosecution.
"We felt like we'll just go a step further and make it statute and also put some teeth in it," Ritze said.
Lawmakers from other states have learned about the proposal and are talking about mimicking it, he said.
Any federal tax agent who tried to enforce the federal law's tax penalties or any bureaucrat who tried to impose a health insurance exchange on the state would face the possibility of arrest and prosecution if House Bill 1021 became law, Ritze said.
If any employee of the Oklahoma Health Care Authority or the state Department of Insurance cooperated with those federal efforts, that person could face misdemeanor prosecution, he said.
Spokesmen for both agencies said they weren't concerned with the possibility of criminal prosecution.
Dahm said he saw the criminal provisions in his Senate Bill 203 as a framework that would be filled in by future lawmakers and as a strong expression of the state's absolute opposition to the law.
"The main purpose for it is to just tell the federal government that they're just supposed to follow the enumerated powers in the Constitution," Dahm said.
"Anything they try to do outside of that is unconstitutional, and if they try to violate the Constitution, there needs to be some sort of repercussions, some sort of punishment."
The federal government has been exceeding its authority for more than 100 years, and it's time to take a stand, he said.
"We can't just continue to idly stand by and let them run roughshod over the people of Oklahoma," Dahm said.
"We're looking out for the interests of the people of Oklahoma like the federal government should be doing but they're currently not doing," Dahm said.
Ritze said there is a long history of state nullification of overreaching federal laws, from the Alien and Sedition Acts of the 18th century to laws in some states legalizing usage of marijuana. In the end, he predicted that federal officials would back down from a confrontation over the health-care law, as they have in other instances.
Meanwhile, Democratic lawmakers are proposing that the state more enthusiastically accept Affordable Care Act programs.
Sen. Sean Burrage, D-Claremore, has introduced Senate Bill 777, which would mandate state participation in the law's Medicaid expansion opportunities.
The law allows states to offer Medicaid coverage to anyone whose household income doesn't exceed 133 percent of the federal poverty rate, although Gov. Mary Fallin has rejected that option because of its potential future costs.
Burrage pointed out that for the first three years, the federal government will pay 100 percent of the cost of new benefits and thereafter the most the state will ever pay is 10 percent of the cost.
That amounts to about $300 a year per person, he said.
"That's a pretty cheap way to have lives insured," Burrage said. "We've got an opportunity for 180,000 people who don't have health insurance to get it."
The expansion would make Oklahomans healthier; save the state costs of operating its public health, mental health, corrections and hospital programs; and improve the business climate, he said.
"We talk about attracting business to the state of Oklahoma. What do they look for? They want a healthy and educated work force," Burrage said.
Rep. Mike Shelton, D-Oklahoma City, proposes in his House Bill 1851 the creation of a state health insurance exchange to accommodate the federal law.
An exchange is an electronic marketplace for comparing and purchasing insurance and the means for passing along federal subsidies under the health law. If the state doesn't create an insurance exchange, the federal law requires the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services to impose one.
"I ultimately think that for the good of the people of Oklahoma it is extremely important ... to look higher than political party," Shelton said. "It's up to the Legislature to get past all the political mess.
"I truly believe that it is a step forward for our citizens to try to come up with a good plan that supports better health outcomes for our state," he said. "We've got to stop playing partisan politics and truly look to help our citizens."
Other legislators -- including Speaker of the House T.W. Shannon and the Tulsa lawmaker who was a leader of the Legislature's most thorough investigation of the health law's impacts -- have also put down markers that would allow them to address the related issues in the next two years.
Shannon, R-Lawton, has introduced House Bill 2039 -- the Oklahoma Healthcare Reform Act of 2013. The bill includes no substantive language.
It is a so-called "shell bill," meaning it meets the legislative filing deadline and can be filled in later with details as needs develop.
Rep. Glen Mulready, R-Tulsa, also filed a shell bill.
While his House Bill 1342 -- the Individual Market Health Insurance Coverage Act -- was filed with many pages of language, Mulready said it was put there inadvertently.
Mulready said he will strike the filler language as soon as possible but will keep the bill as a "bookmark" in case the Legislature needs to address that part of state law in the future.
Wayne Greene 918-581-8308
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