SC proposal to nullify Obamacare stirs passions

abeam@thestate.comNovember 6, 2013 

South Carolina healthcare debate

THE STATE

— Progressive activist Brett Bursey asked a panel of lawmakers Wednesday to “think about the moral aspects” of a bill pending before the state Senate that effectively would nullify the federal Affordable Care Act, which, Bursey says, will help the poor pay for health insurance.

That prompted Chapin resident Sue Burbach to tell senators: “God said the poor will always be with us. Not everyone can be helped.”

Burbach and Bursey, of the South Carolina Progressive Network, were two of about 55 people who spoke during a public hearing Wednesday about H.3101, a bill that seeks to stop S.C. implementation of the federal law that overhauls the nation’s health care system.

That law, often referred to as Obamacare, requires many businesses to offer health insurance to their employees and requires every individual to have health insurance. If you don’t have insurance, the law says you must pay a penalty.

But, if passed into law, H.3101 would let South Carolinians deduct that penalty from their state income taxes to “make them whole,” as state Sen. Tom Davis, R-Beaufort, put it Wednesday. It is a way to strip the Affordable Care Act of its teeth, and also send a message of resistance to conservative Republican and libertarian Tea Party voters.

But giving a tax deduction to employers and employees to offset any federal penalties would strip tens of millions of dollars from the state’s budget every year, former state Sen. Jim Ritchie, now executive director of the S.C. Alliance of Health Plans, and former Department of Health and Environmental Control commissioner Earl Hunter, now representing the S.C. Civil Justice Coalition, warned lawmakers.

Wednesday’s hearing in Columbia – the second of three scheduled hearings statewide – drew a mix of comments, equally passionate and practical.

One speaker, Paula Kinziger of Lake Wylie, said the Affordable Care Act increased the deductible on her health insurance plan to $12,700 from $2,500. Another speaker demanded the “incarceration of any federal agent that attempts to implement Obamacare by force.”

The hearings are not simply therapeutic, allowing conservatives to blow off steam. The bill already has passed the state House of Representatives. And the state Senate has fast-tracked the bill, meaning lawmakers will vote on it after the new legislative session starts in January.

Some aspects of the bill are symbolic, like banning state employees from playing any role in enacting the federal law and making it illegal for the state to set up a health-care exchange. Other portions could change because of pressure from the state’s insurance industry.

One portion of the bill would “encourage” the S.C. attorney general to take to court any business that the state’s top lawyer thinks is harming people by implementing the law. Ritchie of the Alliance of Health Plans and Hunter of the Civil Justice Coalition worried that could spook some large insurance companies enough that they would stop offering coverage in South Carolina.

Instead, Ritchie and Hunter suggested the state strengthen the state Insurance Department to “maintain a healthy market at the state level.”

“We look forward to working with you to find ways we can effectively push back to protect our freedoms,” Ritchie told lawmakers. “Unfortunately, H.3101 does not meet those goals. We look forward to working with you on legislation that might.”

If bill reaches Republican Gov. Nikki Haley’s desk, it is unclear if she would sign it.

Haley – who is running for re-election in 2014 – repeated her opposition Wednesday to the Affordable Care Act. But she said she had “not looked at the details” of the bill. She is cautious, she said, of "putting too much energy into something that can still be adjusted and changed.”

Whatever the final bill looks like, many at Wednesday’s hearing wanted it to pass anyway.

“It may not be the right answer,” said Frank Duncan, who spoke briefly. “But it shows opposition to a bill that is a disaster in the making.”

Reach Beam at (803) 386-7038.

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