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South Carolina lawmakers take aim at healthcare law

Doctor Andy Chiou debrides a leg wound on patient Larry Kirk in Peoria, Illinois, November 26, 2013. REUTERS/Jim Young
Doctor Andy Chiou debrides a leg wound on patient Larry Kirk in Peoria, Illinois, November 26, 2013. REUTERS/Jim Young

By Harriet McLeod

CHARLESTON, South Carolina (Reuters) - South Carolina lawmakers say they have found a way to stop implementation of the U.S. Affordable Care Act in their state, an effort that could provide a template for other Republican-led legislatures looking to derail the federal program.

The proposed measure would ban state agencies from helping carry out President Barack Obama's signature healthcare reform law and prevent federal money flowing through state coffers from being spent on it, said Republican state Senator Tom Davis.

The legislation would give South Carolina oversight of insurance rates offered through its federal exchange and require healthcare navigators, which help people sign up for the healthcare benefits, to be licensed by the state, said Davis, who chairs the committee drafting the measure.

The state's 2014 legislative session opens on Tuesday.

"Even though the federal government may pass a law, and even though that law may be constitutional, that doesn't mean that the federal government can direct the state to spend state dollars to implement it," he said. "States aren't simply political subdivisions of the federal government."

Six states have barred their employees from helping implement the law known as Obamacare, said Richard Cauchi, healthcare program director for the nonpartisan National Conference of State Legislatures.

At least eight states, including two that support the healthcare reforms, have regulated navigators, he added.

The new laws are mostly legally untested, Cauchi said.

"Florida and Ohio have said: 'We will have nothing to do with this law; we won't make it workable,'" he said. "At what point does state inaction constitute interference with a federal law?"

Last fall, a federal judge blocked Tennessee's "emergency rule," which would have fined healthcare navigators for helping people find insurance under the Affordable Care Act.

In December, Georgia lawmakers said they would follow South Carolina's lead this year in trying to prevent state agencies from taking part in Obamacare. With many legislatures convening this month, it is too soon to tell what other states will consider new obstacles to the law, Cauchi said.

Last year, South Carolina's House of Representatives passed legislation to nullify Obamacare, but Davis said that effort clearly would not have passed legal muster.

The state senator said he believed the rewritten bill, which he expects to be taken up for debate in a few weeks, would have teeth.

Opponents of the federal law are looking to South Carolina for a "template, something that other states can follow," Davis said. "It's like we're holding the fort until we can get people in Congress that can repeal or replace it."

He said he expected Democratic opposition and would need almost every Senate Republican's vote to stop a filibuster.

Critics of the South Carolina measure said the new attack on the Affordable Care Act was political theater.

"It is going to hurt people being able to access the marketplace because some of the navigator teams will pull out," said Brett Bursey, director of the South Carolina Progressive Network, a nonprofit coalition of liberal groups.

If the measure becomes law, it probably will face legal challenges from opponents, said Gibbs Knotts, chairman of the political science department at the College of Charleston.

"It's blocking access to something provided by the federal government," Knotts said. "There's all sorts of unfunded (federal) mandates that the states have to play a role in."

(Editing by Colleen Jenkins and Lisa Von Ahn)

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