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McKenna fighting health overhaul

Against Gregoire’s wishes, Washington AG vows to join lawsuit over federal plan

OLYMPIA – Washington’s Republican attorney general will join other states in a lawsuit against the federal health care reform plan, a move its Democratic governor denounced as “not representing the people of this state.”

Attorney General Rob McKenna said Monday afternoon he questions the constitutionality of the health care reform package passed Sunday by Congress and soon to be signed by President Barack Obama. His was a rare discordant voice as other state officials praised the legislation as good for Washington and its troubled budget.

“I believe this new federal health care measure unconstitutionally imposes new requirements on our state and on its citizens,” McKenna said in a statement released by his office Monday afternoon. “This unprecedented federal mandate, requiring all Washingtonians to purchase health insurance, violates the Commerce Clause and the 10th Amendment of the U.S. Constitution.”

The 10th Amendment says powers not listed in the Constitution, or prohibited for the states, are left to the states and the people. That amendment is most often cited by proponents of greater sovereignty by the states.

The bill places “an extraordinary burden” on the state budget by expanding its Medicaid eligibility standards, McKenna said.

Gov. Chris Gregoire said she “totally disagrees” with McKenna’s decision, which she didn’t know about until reading a news account. She said she then called him to discuss it.

“I don’t know who he’s representing,” Gregoire said. Not her, not the people who will be added to the state’s Basic Health Plan because of it, and not the doctors and hospitals that will have larger Medicare reimbursement payments because of the new federal plan, she said.

The attorney general’s office may need to assign an attorney to represent her “because I totally oppose what he’s doing.”

The governor’s and attorney general’s offices are constitutionally separate in Washington and elected separately by voters every four years. McKenna has been mentioned as the GOP’s front runner for governor in 2012, and Gregoire has not ruled out a run for a third term in the top spot. Gregoire was attorney general before she was governor.

As attorney general, Gregoire sued the federal government over cleanup at the Hanford Nuclear Reservation. When reminded of that by reporters, she noted a major difference: The governor at the time, Gary Locke, wanted her to take on the government on that score.

“I don’t buy the legal theory, either,” Gregoire said. Because she’s not a practicing attorney now, she talked to her legal adviser about it and said she has questions about it. “I’ll leave that to the lawyers to sort out.”

Senate Majority Leader Lisa Brown, D-Spokane, said she was “extremely disappointed” in McKenna’s decision. Some states such as Florida, which is where the lawsuit may originate, could have higher costs because of the new federal law, but Washington is expected to benefit because it got an early start on a state Basic Health Plan and will see higher Medicare reimbursements, Brown said.

Insurance Commissioner Mike Kreidler, also a Democrat, said the legislation will transform the state: “For decades, our health care system has failed millions of people – driving them and their families into bankruptcy, letting treatable diseases fester into health crises, and invisibly leeching billions of dollars from our economy.”

His office released a list of short-term and long-term changes. In the next six months, the law will end denials of children for pre-existing conditions, do away with the $1 million lifetime cap on benefits, end co-pays for preventive treatment and give Medicare patients a $250 rebate to help with prescription drug costs.

Kreidler also said he was “deeply disappointed” that McKenna plans to fight the new law, after a battle he called too bitter and partisan. “It’s my hope that we come together as a state to enact reform rather than let families continue to suffer while lawyers battle in the courts.”

But McKenna had his supporters, too. State Rep. Matt Shea, R-Spokane Valley, praised him for fighting a “ruthless, unconstitutional mandate” and a federal takeover of health care.

“I see it as a day of hope and the beginning of states finally telling the federal government they’ve had enough,” said Shea, who introduced a string of so-called state sovereignty bills at the beginning of the session, including one that would block any law requiring a person have health insurance. That and other sovereignty bills died in the regular session without even getting a committee hearing.

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