Health Care and the Supreme Court: Is it unconstitutional to require individuals to buy health insurance?
Update, June 2012: The U.S. Supreme Court upheld President Obama's health care law by a 5-4 vote. The majority said that the law's individual mandate -- a requirement that most Americans get insurance or pay a penalty -- was allowed by Congress' power to levy taxes.
March 26, 2012
By John Vettese, Student Voices staff writer
During the presidential primary season, you’ve probably heard the term “Obamacare” thrown around a lot.
That’s how those who oppose the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act – the health care law signed by President Obama in 2010 – refer to it. Debate over the law was heated and polarized long before it got the president’s signature. And this week, the Supreme Court began three days of oral arguments to determine whether the law is constitutional.
This is a major undertaking for the court; it’s uncommon have three days of oral arguments on a case. It’s also significant that the case is being heard during a presidential election year. Since the health care law was a signature achievement of Obama’s presidency, a ruling in favor of it could strengthen his reelection chances in November – just as a ruling against it could make him go into election season weakened.
Among its many provisions, the law requires that all citizens have health insurance beginning in 2014. It also says insurance companies cannot deny coverage based on “preexisting conditions” – a medical issue that you knew you had when you applied for insurance – nor can companies charge higher premiums for those with health problems. It allows those who do not have access to affordable coverage through their jobs to buy insurance with the help of government subsidies. If people do not, they will be penalized – with fines beginning at $95.
On the one hand, opponents argue that the government has no right to force citizens to purchase something. Commentators have called this “the broccoli question” – if Congress is allowed to pass a law requiring you to buy health insurance, what’s to stop it from passing a law requiring you to buy, say, broccoli? Or whatever they felt like making you buy? The counterargument is that the health care law falls under the limits of what Congress can regulate because everybody uses it – and is something that, if an individual doesn’t pay for it, everybody else has to through tax dollars.
On the other hand, supporters of the health care law say it is constitutional because Article I, Section 8, in the Constitution, known as the Commerce Clause, gives Congress the power to regulate business across state lines and the law is necessary to expand access to health care. However, the 26 states that sued to block the health care law say that by making individuals buy health insurance, Congress has overstepped its bounds.
There are a few possible outcomes after the justices hear the arguments. The justices could uphold the entire health care law. They could overturn the entire law. They could simply overturn only the individual mandate to buy health insurance – and leave other components of the law intact. Or, the court could decide not to issue a ruling. One of the questions before the court is whether the fine for not buying insurance is a tax. If the court decides it is a tax, the justices would be able to delay ruling until the individual mandate kicks in in 2014 because of a law saying Americans have to pay a tax before they can challenge it in court.
Experts believe that won’t happen, however, since so many people – from politicians to health care providers – want an answer now.
What do you think?
Is it unconstitutional for the government to require health insurance? Should the government be allowed to regulate it? If you were on the Supreme Court, how would you rule? Join the discussion!
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