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State Legislators Push To Penalize Officials For Implementing Health Overhaul

Jan 14, 2011

This story also appeared on NPR's Shots health blog.

Lawmakers in a handful of states have introduced legislation that would criminalize PPACA.

No, that's not the acronym for a designer street drug or racketeering syndicate — it's the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act, the new federal health law, that they're talking about.

If the bills become laws, state officials who enforce the federal health overhaul could go to the slammer. Wyoming's Health Care Choice and Protection Act, introduced this week, would impose penalties on state-level implementers of the federal health law, including fines up to $5,000 and two years in a county jail. Federal officials would face a stiffer sentence — up to five years.

Maine's more restrained legislation, which was referred to a committee Tuesday, would limit local officials' time behind bars to less than a year. But, federal officials — and even federal government contractors — could get slapped with the same 5-year sentence under the law.

Meanwhile, a bill forbidding officials from requiring people and businesses to buy health insurance was referred to committee in Montana on Tuesday. Earlier in the week, a Nebraska lawmaker introduced the Health Care Freedom Act, which has language similar to that of the Montana legislation. And Florida senators cleared a bill in committee Tuesday that could bar some health law provisions.

These aren't novel moves for state-level health law opponents. Before the law even passed, local legislators in all but a dozen states had introduced or passed legislation to erect health overhaul hurdles, USA Today reported last year. But adding jail time ups the ante.

Even if the new bills pass, though, they could run afoul of rules that prevent state and federal laws from conflicting. As Timothy Jost, a Washington and Lee University law professor, puts it in an e-mail to us:

This is blatantly, flagrantly unconstitutional. Federal law is supreme to state law and states cannot punish its enforcement. … To my knowledge none of these laws have been enacted, and I trust good sense will prevail in these states.

For Maine, the legislation is also an emblem of the tectonic shift that upended Vacationland's political establishment in November. When the health law cleared Congress in Washington, both houses of Maine's legislature and the governor's office were occupied by Democrats. Now, all are run by Republicans.

Shortly after the midterm election, Trish Riley, the defeated Democratic governor's top health adviser, told us Maine officials envisioned a health reform rollout that would in some ways be "more robust than Massachusetts." Now, at least some newly empowered conservative lawmakers are pushing to make the realization of that vision a crime.

State Rep. Richard Cebra, who introduced the Maine law, didn't immediately return an e-mail and calls to his district and Augusta offices. Cebra, a Republican, is the owner of Steamboat Landing in Naples, Maine, billed on its website as "Maine's premier miniature golf course."

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