RALEIGH, N.C. (AP) — Members of the North Carolina General Assembly's new Republican majority showed with one of their first acts Thursday they want to add the state to the fight over the federal health care overhaul law.
The House Judiciary Committee voted 23-16 along party lines to approve legislation that aims to block a provision of the federal law requiring Americans to buy insurance beginning in 2014 or pay a penalty.
"This is designed to protect the vast majority of our citizens from what we believe is an unjustified incursion of government power," said House Majority Leader Paul Stam, R-Wake, who sponsored the bill. "It's the first time, as a condition of living and breathing, that you are required to buy a product."
The measure could see a vote in the full House as early as next week. If approved there, it would head to the GOP-dominated Senate.
Republican legislative candidates made challenging the health care law one of their top 10 campaign promises last fall.
GOP lawmakers said the bill is designed to force Attorney General Roy Cooper, a Democrat, to join 26 other states in a lawsuit challenging the constitutionality of the insurance mandate. Cooper has refused to join litigation by other states.
The bill would require the attorney general to defend any new state law banning the insurance mandate, as well as individuals who resist the federal provision.
"His oath of office requires him to enforce the laws that we pass," Stam said.
Cooper said he must uphold state and federal laws, but if they conflict, the U.S. Constitution and federal law prevails and the mandate must be enforced.
"A state law that authorizes North Carolina citizens to violate federal law could be found to be unconstitutional. The federal health law is deemed constitutional until the federal appellate courts conclude otherwise," he said in a statement.
Democrats argue that requiring people to purchase insurance reduces overall costs, including that of treating the uninsured.
"Is it your position that there are people in North Carolina that never require medical care?" House Minority Leader Joe Hackney, D-Orange, asked Stam. "You're saying that they have the right to have other people pay for it."
The federal law is designed to extend health care coverage to 32 million uninsured Americans and make coverage more affordable to millions of others by expanding the reach of Medicaid and creating new subsidies. Insurance companies would be prohibited from refusing coverage to people with illnesses and individuals could buy policies on newly created exchanges.
About one in five North Carolina residents under age 65 lacks health insurance, one of the country's worst percentages, according to Census Bureau data.
If the federal law's insurance requirement takes effect in 2014, more than half of the 1.6 million people without insurance would likely buy coverage, according to an estimate by legislative analysts. If the federal law survives to 2014 without the mandate, about 80 percent of the uninsured would stay that way, analysts estimated.
Democrats also questioned why North Carolina should spend thousands of dollars to join a fight other states are already waging when it has a $3.7 billion spending gap that must be closed in next year's recession-battered budget.
"Whatever costs are involved with fighting it out, why not let them pay? I don't see any reason we're jumping into that fight," said Rep. Phil Haire, D-Jackson.
"Adding our state to the lawsuit adds a little extra weight," Stam said.