PHOENIX — Arizonans won’t get a chance to vote on a measure designed to ensure that people with pre-existing conditions can get affordable health insurance.
In a brief order late Thursday, the Arizona Supreme Court upheld the ruling of a trial judge who had concluded there are insufficient valid signatures on the petitions to put the issue on the November ballot. The justices rejected claims by proponents that certain legal requirements for circulators to appear in court did not apply.
The move is a victory for the hospital industry which was more concerned about two other provisions in the initiative.
One would have required a 20% raise over four years for virtually all hospital workers. The only exceptions would have been executives and doctors.
Hospitals also opposed a requirement to conform with new infection-control standards, calling them unnecessary.
The initiative also had a fourth provision which would have enacted some protection for patients against “surprise” medical bills. That situation can occur when someone goes to a hospital that is in the network of coverage for his or her insurance only to find out that a doctor or anesthesiologist there is not part of the same insurance network and wants to be paid in full.
Backers said they submitted more than 425,000 signatures to put the issue to voters. And campaign spokesman Rodd McLeod said a review by state and county officials found 285,000 of those to be valid.
But following a hearing, Maricopa County Superior Court Judge Pamela Gates said even the proponents conceded that 111,337 of the signatures submitted were invalid. Then there were issues of circulators not appearing in court after being subpoenaed, a move that resulted in Gates disqualifying all the names they collected.
Ultimately, the judge said she found only 221,336 valid signatures on the petitions, short of the 237,645 needed to qualify.
The ruling drew an angry reaction from McLeod.
“This decision sends a message that it’s nearly impossible for ordinary citizens to exercise their basic constitutional rights,” he said, what with legal procedures that can be used by foes to disqualify signatures. “The court has demonstrated more empathy for millionaire CEOs than for the difficulties that Arizona families face every day.”
But signatures weren’t the only problem. Gates also said there were other reasons to keep the measure off the ballot, including that the required 100-word description that has to appear on all petitions was misleading.
The justices, however, did not address that issue, saying the lack of signatures was all they needed to consider.
Provisions on pre-existing conditions were designed to have something in place in Arizona law if and when the U.S. Supreme Court voids the federal Affordable Care Act. That federal statute, known colloquially as ObamaCare, not only provides access to affordable insurance but is designed to require access to affordable coverage even for those who already have health conditions.
State lawmakers earlier this year did approve what Republicans said would provide such protections if the Affordable Care Act was overturned.
But Democrats said what it lacks is a requirement that the offered insurance be affordable. The initiative, however, included such protections.
The language on infection control would have required hospitals to comply with certain national standards based on benchmarks set by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention for certain services, ranging from problems caused by putting in a catheter to MRSA infections caused by a certain type of staph bacteria that is resistant to certain antibiotics. Hospitals that did not meet the standards would have been subject to oversight by the state Department of Health Services and subject to fines for violations.
The section on pay would have required an immediate 5 percent increase, followed by successive 5 percent pay increases for the following three years.
With the current voter-mandated minimum wage of $12 an hour for all workers, that would put the minimum for hospital workers at $14.59 when fully implemented. But the increase also would have been mandated for those making much more.
The campaign was financed by the California-based United Healthcare Workers West branch of the Service Employees International Union.