Dave Roland
As many fans of the Show-Me Institute will already know, I have spent a lot of time during the past six months discussing the questionable constitutionality of Congress' attempt to punish individual citizens who choose not to purchase government-approved health insurance policies. In fact, I'll be discussing this issue tomorrow morning between 10:15 and 10:45 on Sarah Steelman's radio show on KWTO 560-AM in Springfield. You can also listen in online.

Early in this year's legislative session, members of the General Assembly asked me to offer testimony on the Health Care Freedom Act, which was proposed as a constitutional amendment that would recognize the fundamental right of citizens of Missouri to decide for themselves how they will pay for their health care, and that no government could rightfully interfere with that decision. In my testimony, I pointed out that if courts decided that nothing in the U.S. Constitution prevented the government from mandating the purchase of government-approved insurance policies, a constitutional amendment of the sort contemplated in the Health Care Freedom Act could offer a legal "Hail Mary" — a last line of defense that might prevent further congressional intrusion into citizens' lives.

Despite overwhelming support in both the House and Senate, the Missouri General Assembly did not agree to let citizens vote on this constitutional amendment. Instead, the legislature placed the original bill's language into House Bill 1764, which would allow voters an August referendum on adopting a new statute. Many of the legislators and citizen groups who had worked to pass the original bill are now hailing the passage of HB 1764, implying that if the people vote to adopt this statute, it will have the same effect as the proposed constitutional amendment might have. Unfortunately, this is simply not true. Missouri voters may well use this referendum as a political statement through which they can express their opinions about the federal health care reform law, but the text that might have been legally useful as a constitutional amendment will have zero legal effect as a statute.

The text that will be presented at the referendum states, in part: "No law or rule shall compel, directly or indirectly, any person, employer, or health care provider to participate in any health care system." A court called upon to evaluate whether this provision would be effective against any federal enforcement of the health insurance mandate will first point out that because the language makes no reference to any particular government, it must be assumed to apply only to law- or rule-making subdivisions of the state of Missouri. Not only is it virtually unheard of (and generally futile) for a state statute to attempt to bind the federal government or one of its agencies, the plain text of the bill says nothing to suggest that is its purpose. A court looking at this provision as a statute will almost certainly end its analysis there.

However, even if the court infers that the General Assembly intended to prevent the enforcement of certain federal laws, the statute will fail. In order for the Health Care Freedom Act to have any hope of being effective, it would have to give citizens the basis to argue that health care freedom is a fundamental right beyond any government's rightful authority to transgress. If the citizen could make that argument, there would be a very slight chance that the U.S. Supreme Court might consider such a fundamental right sufficient to prevent the government from punishing those who chose not to abide by the individual insurance mandate. A statute, however, is not the mechanism by with citizens establish fundamental rights or liberties — they put those in their constitutions, where they are insulated from repeal or avoidance by future legislation. Thus, even if HB 1764 had purported to establish a fundamental right or liberty, courts would have been unlikely to take them seriously. It just so happens that HB 1764 does not even make such an effort, further diminishing any legal usefulness it otherwise might have had.

To be clear, I do not mean to suggest that proponents of the Health Care Freedom Act are intentionally misleading people as to the likely effect of HB 1764. But Missouri's citizens deserve to know that the bill and the upcoming referendum it authorizes can only be considered a political statement. Even if the people adopt this statute at the August referendum, their rights and liberties will be no more secure than if the bill had been defeated.

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