HELENA — Republicans running the Montana Legislature who have launched bills aimed at undermining a federal health care law they believe is unconstitutional may themselves be running up against the state Constitution by trying to order the attorney general to take action.
The first GOP proposal on the issue to get a hearing Wednesday would direct the state attorney general to join about 20 other states suing the federal government over the health care plan.
Legislature's lawyer issues warning
But the Legislature's top lawyer said in an analysis that ordering the attorney general to participate could "pose a significant risk" of violating the state constitution's separation of powers clause.
Republicans brushed off the concern during an occasionally tense hearing on the proposal. Bill sponsor state Sen. Jason Priest of Red Lodge said there are differences of opinion on the constitutionality of his bill.
He called the federal health care law a "a job killer and budget buster." But he raised the ire of a Democrat on the panel by referring to it as "Obamacare."
Democrat objects to term 'Obamacare'
Sen. Anders Blewett interrupted him, asking him not to use a term many Democrats believe is intended to deride the president of the United States.
"Throwing around that term is not a way to constructively hold this conversation," Blewett said.
Some at a Wednesday morning hearing argued the federal law is fixing big issues with insurance, such as caps on the cost of treatment for expensive illnesses and by allowing college-aged children with significant health problems to remain on their parents' insurance policies.
Helena residents likes the reform
Kate Whitney of Helena said her policy, initiated before the federal health care reform bill became law, capped lifetime benefits for a disease at $500,000. She said her daughter's lung transplant, and all the resulting issues that will last her life, was already at that figure and on the path to go higher.
The health care law removed that lifetime cap, but getting rid of the law would abandon such helpful benefits, she argued.
"What are we supposed to do in the meantime?" she said. "Go back to the broken system that was not providing people coverage?"
Attorney general's office opposes bill
The attorney general's office appeared before the Senate Judiciary Committee to oppose the bill.
Another bill heard in committee Wednesday would prevent Montanans from being sanctioned for refusing to participate in the federal health care law, which Republicans feel is too costly.
It would do so by banning the state government, which will be charged with implementing much of the federal health care law, from sanctioning citizens. Another GOP bill could be coming that would make a similar policy statement in a proposed constitutional amendment that would be put before voters.
GOP outlines other ideas
Republicans outlined for reporters several other health care ideas they will be pitching.
They include a plan to promote health care savings accounts instead of insurance assuming people will choose cheaper health care if they use their own money. Other ideas would strip state-mandated coverage types for insurance, allowing insurance companies to sell cheaper policies and promotion of high deductible policies.