COLUMBUS, Ohio — Voters will get the chance to decide whether Ohio will opt out of the national health care overhaul after the state's top election official said Tuesday that opponents of the federal Affordable Care Act have enough signatures to put a constitutional amendment on the Nov. 8 ballot.
Secretary of State Jon Husted determined that supporters of an amendment that would prohibit Ohio from participating in the program had gathered 427,000 valid signatures. They had submitted more than 546,000 and needed roughly 358,000 of them validated to make it on to the ballot.
The amendment will find itself on the ballot alongside a measure to repeal a contentious new collective bargaining law.
A coalition of tea party organizations, small government advocates and religious groups gathered the signatures to get the health care measure on the ballot and now plan to mount a statewide campaign in support of the amendment.
The coalition has more than 35,000 volunteers, an "army of grass roots support," ready to mobilize to raise money to identify and turn out voters in November's election, said Jeff Longstreth, campaign manager for Ohioans for Healthcare Freedom, a group that played a large role in the petitions.
"This issue would not be on the ballot without the blood, sweat and tears of thousands and thousands and thousands of volunteers," Longstreth said. "The message is clear: keep health care between doctors and patients, and keep bureaucrats out of it."
The measure would change Ohio's Constitution to prohibit any federal, state or local law from forcing Ohio residents, employers or health care providers to participate in a health care system. It also would prevent the state from enacting a Massachusetts-style health care program, where the state requires a minimum level of insurance coverage.
The groups backing the amendment are united by a common belief that government is overstepping its bounds by requiring individuals to purchase health insurance.
"If they can force you to buy a product, where does it end?" Longstreth said. "Can it dictate what you eat? Where you live? Where you can drive?"
The federal mandate goes into effect in 2014, when statewide insurance exchanges are supposed to go in operation. Gov. John Kasich has said he is proceeding with putting the health exchanges in place in Ohio despite his personal opposition to the Obama plan.
Other provisions of the Affordable Care Act — including prohibiting insurance companies from denying coverage based on preexisting conditions, raising the age to which young adults can stay on their parents' insurance plan, and allowing states to put more people on Medicaid — have already gone into effect.
The Obama administration has defended the insurance mandate, saying Congress has the right under the U.S. Constitution's Commerce Clause to regulate interstate commerce.
Supporters of Ohio's proposed amendment say it would encourage the U.S. Supreme Court to come to a more expeditious decision regarding the constitutionality of the federal law.
If voters approve the amendment in November, the U.S. Justice Department would be forced to file a lawsuit, said Richard Manning, spokesman for Americans for Limited Government.
In five U.S. District Court decisions, three judges upheld the constitutionality of the law, while two struck it down. In the first ruling by an appellate court, the 6th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in Cincinnati held that it was constitutional for Congress to mandate individuals to purchase health insurance.
Opponents of the proposed amendment include Ohio progressive groups. They say it continued a misinformation campaign surrounding the health care overhaul by keeping the public agitated instead of educating people on the effects of the law.
Those opponents have volunteers independently checking signatures and plan on filing a challenge, ProgressOhio executive director Brian Rothenberg said in a statement. They have until Aug. 5 to file any challenges.