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Repeal effort percolating

Petitioner Earl Sholley got a signature from Elaine Lapides, a family therapist from Wellesley, outside Roche Bros. in Wellesley. Petitioner Earl Sholley got a signature from Elaine Lapides, a family therapist from Wellesley, outside Roche Bros. in Wellesley. (Michele McDonald for The Boston Globe)
By Robert Weisman
Globe Staff / October 6, 2011

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WELLESLEY - While the sparring over universal health care continues in the courts and on the presidential campaign trial, a new front in the battle recently opened outside the Roche Bros. store in this tranquil suburb.

“Will you sign our petition to repeal the individual mandate?’’ Bridget Fay asked shoppers wheeling grocery carts past a stack of pumpkins in front of the supermarket.

Fay, a young lawyer, is the spokeswoman for a new group called Massachusetts Against Individual Mandate. If she and other petitioners can collect 69,000 valid signatures of registered voters by Nov. 23, they will clear a major hurdle toward getting a question on the November 2012 state election ballot to repeal the part of the state health care law that requires Massachusetts residents to buy medical insurance.

In the first week of their campaign, they collected more than 5,000 names, according to Fay.

The proposed referendum, coinciding with elections for president and US senator, would be certain to attract attention because the mandate is considered a linchpin of the state’s health care overhaul. The 2006 law has boosted the share of insured Massachusetts residents to more than 98 percent, the highest rate in the nation. Moreover, the overhaul and its mandate were models for President Obama’s Affordable Care Act, which passed Congress after much debate last year and has emerged as a contentious issue in the early months of the presidential race.

While it is not clear a repeal of the insurance requirement would cause the state health care law to unravel, it could at least boost the number of uninsured residents. And by allowing healthy young people to drop coverage without a paying a penalty, it might increase insurance premiums for older and less healthy people in the so-called small group market, which insures individuals and small companies. That’s because insurers would not be able to draw from a larger risk pool filled with members who typically have fewer medical expenses.

It could also prove embarrassing to Obama, and to former governor and current Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney, who backed the state’s health care reboot, but opposed the national law. A spokeswoman for Romney’s campaign said he still supports the Massachusetts health care law, but declined to discuss the repeal petition.

“At a time when voters are angry and frustrated, this could have a huge political impact,’’ said Robert J. Blendon, professor of health policy and political analysis at the Harvard School of Public Health who studies public attitudes toward health care. “If the parent state that made this [near-universal health care] happen couldn’t sustain the support, why would anyone in Texas or Mississippi support it? It could create real pressure to roll it back nationally.’’

A poll conducted by the Harvard School of Public Health and The Boston Globe in June showed 63 percent of Massachusetts residents supported the 2006 state law, while 21 percent opposed it. That marked a 10-percentage-point increase in support from 2009.

But the June poll also showed only a slim majority - 51 percent - supported the individual mandate, with 44 percent weighing in against it. That compared with 35 percent who opposed it two years earlier.

Backers of the petition drive, a core of whom belong to the antiabortion group Massachusetts Citizens for Life, give different reasons for supporting repeal. While many object to any law that compels people to take part in an insurance system that covers abortions, that is only one of their issues.

Petition-drive backers say they support the principle of universal medical care coverage but oppose the idea of government forcing individuals to buy any product.

In addition, they say the Massachusetts health care law has boosted costs and could lead to rationing of medical care. They are similarly against the national health care law they call ObamaCare, which is being challenged in courts around the country and has been attacked by Republican presidential candidates, including Romney.

“I’m willing to subsidize someone else,’’ said Anne Fox, one of the referendum organizers and president of Citizens for Life. “I just don’t want to go through the government.’’

A number of petition signers outside the Roche Bros. store said they favor the state law, but questioned the need for an individual mandate. Some said they simply backed the idea of putting any question on the ballot, regardless of whether they would vote for it.

“It’s active citizenship,’’ said Navy veteran Ian Davis of Boston, one of the signers. “This makes me proud to be an American.’’ Davis was quick to add, however, that he doesn’t want the ballot question to pass.

“I like health care in the state, so I probably wouldn’t vote for this,’’ he said.

Other signers gave their full-throated endorsement to a mandate repeal. “I am against RomneyCare and ObamaCare,’’ said Elaine Lapides, a family therapist from Wellesley. “This is not the American way, from my point of view.’’

Fay and two other petitioners, Earl Sholley and Derek Power, faced some hostility from defenders of the health care laws. One woman demanded to know if they were Democrats or Republicans, yelling from a car, “If you’re gathering signatures, you should tell people.’’

Proponents of the Massachusetts health care law said they consider the petition drive an effort to ridicule the state and erode support for national health care changes.

“To a certain extent, it’s like closing the barn door after the horse is out,’’ said Harvard Kennedy School public policy lecturer Thomas P. Glynn, who worked on the state bill in his former role as chief operating officer at Partners HealthCare System Inc. “The law has been phenomenally successful. It’s exceeded expectations in terms of enrollment and the quality of services people have been able to get.’’

Organizers of Massachusetts Against Individual Mandate thus far are relying on volunteers to gather signatures in several counties, though they say they eventually may hire professionals. While their target is 69,000 valid signatures, they hope to amass 100,000 to 110,000 because those not registered to vote in Massachusetts will be disqualified.

If they succeed, their petition would be forwarded to the Legislature, which would consider enacting it as law, an unlikely outcome.

If lawmakers do not act, petitioners would then be required to collect nearly 11,500 more signatures by July to get the question on the November 2012 ballot.

At Roche Bros., there was a sense that the signature harvesting was going to be a long-term effort. “My sister convinced me we should make a Facebook event for this,’’ Fay said. “She said she’d tweet it.’’

Robert Weisman can be reached at weisman@globe.com.