In 2009, when someone asked Nancy Pelosi a question implying that health reform legislation might be unconstitutional, she replied: “Are you serious?”
Pelosi wasn’t alone. At the outset, many legal scholars considered the challenge to the Affordable Care Act (ACA) both “implausible” and “frivolous.”
But over the next two years, the notion that state courts might strike down the ACA took on a life of its own. Most people had only a hazy idea of what was actually in the legislation; nevertheless the idea of “health reform” inspired heated rhetoric. Soon, state attorneys general and governors responded to the political opportunities, banding together to make what Slate Senior Editor Dahlia Lithwick calls, “novel arguments in the form of what was always a constitutional Hail Mary pass … It’s no accident that until the lower district courts started striking down the act, none of the challengers really believed that they could succeed.”
Yet somehow, this week, the highest court in the land is hearing oral arguments in a case that even supporters viewed as a long shot. How did this happen?
The media played a major role, fanning political passions by quoting every challenge – including the absurd claim that the bill called for “death panels.” As Rachel Maddow observed Monday night: this case was “built up as the Super Bowl of American partisan politics.” Thus, the Supreme Court was left with little choice: it had to hear “The Case of the Century.”
Next week, while the Republicans continue their search for a candidate to stand against President Obama in the fall election, the president’s central legislative triumph – the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act of 2010 – will come before the Supreme Court. The justices have the power to declare the law unconstitutional and thereby kill “Obamacare” before it even leaves the birthing chamber. While some believe that such an outcome would be proper, we disagree. A court decision overturning the Affordable Care Act would be an egregious misreading of the Constitution.
The critics’ central constitutional claim is that the 2010 law’s individual-mandate provision exceeds Congress’ regulatory authority. In essence, this provision requires a broad swath of Americans to procure health insurance conforming to certain federal standards. Those who do not procure this insurance must generally pay a “penalty” to the IRS.
Had the bill explicitly used the word “tax” instead of “penalty,” the fatal flaw of the constitutional challenge would be obvious to all. The Constitution undeniably gives Congress sweeping power to tax. And if Congress can tax a person, and then use that tax money to buy a health-care package for that person’s benefit, why can’t it simply direct the person to procure the package himself, or else pay a higher tax?
Of course, tax is a word that lawmakers try to avoid at all costs, and so the euphemistic penalty won the day. Yet, as Shakespeare reminds us, “a rose by any other name would smell as sweet.” Here, penalty and tax are simply two ways of saying the same thing.
Indeed, the Constitution itself does not always use the T-word when referring to taxes, broadly defined. It also uses the words excises, duties, and imposts in the opening sentence of Article I, Section 8, and elsewhere refers generally to all generic “Bills for raising Revenue.” The important thing here is not the term, but how the actual instrument functions, and clearly Obamacare functions as a tax – as a revenue measure. In perfect synch with the Constitution’s key word, revenue, the penalty section of Obamacare is in fact codified in title 26 – the Internal Revenue Code. The “penalty” is paid to the IRS via forms administered by that very same IRS.
When Barack Obama ran for president in 2008, he insisted the nation could fix its health care system without requiring everyone to carry insurance. As the Supreme Court prepares to weigh in on the health law, Obama is facing the possibility that he may have to make good on his campaign claim.
Experts consider the requirement to hold insurance, known as the individual mandate, to be the most legally vulnerable part of the law.
The administration argues that the law’s main goal of providing health coverage to 30 million additional Americans could not be achieved without the mandate because too many healthy people would refuse to obtain insurance, leaving primarily sick people in the insurance pools and driving up premium costs. Obama came around to this viewpoint after he was elected.
There are ways that Obama—if he’s re-elected — might be able to salvage the law even if the court strikes down the individual mandate but leaves the rest intact, health policy experts say.
These fixes would create financial incentives for people to not delay enrolling in insurance.
One such approach would be similar to what happens in Medicare’s Part B program, where people who wait too long to sign up for physician coverage must pay higher premiums.
What will they do? The Supreme Court (more or less) that gave us Bush v Gore in 2000 will later this month hear arguments by states challenging the Affordable Care Act, a.k.a. health care reform. The heart of the legal challenge raised by conservative state attorneys general is whether the individual mandate is constitutional. What happens if the Supremes say no? Does the entire law fall, or just the mandate?
The issue for lawyers is called “severability.” Did Congress when passing the law believe the mandate was necessary to the smooth functioning of the rest of the law? Clearly there are large swaths of the law for which the mandate is largely irrelevant: the physician payments sunshine act (disclosure of drug company payments to doctors); the creation of the Patient Centered Outcomes Research Institute to conduct comparative effectiveness research; the numerous payment pilot projects; and more.
But on the core question of the law’s desire to expand coverage for the uninsured and set minimum insurance standards like forcing insurance companies to guarantee policies to all comers at non-discriminatory rates, the issue of the mandate’s necessity becomes murkier. The Obama administration is simultaneously arguing that it is crucial to the law’s smooth functioning, yet isn’t necessary. How can both be true? Here’s how two physicians, Samuel Y. Sessions and Allan S. Detsky, writing in the New England Journal of Medicine explain the seeming contradiction:
Arguing that the mandate is constitutional under the Commerce Clause requires taking the position that it is “essential” to the statutory scheme, whereas arguing that it is severable dictates the seemingly opposite position that the ACA is “capable of functioning without it.” Politically, making both arguments may be awkward, which may be one reason why the administration endorses partial severability. Legally, however, the positions are consistent: the mandate may be an important part of the statutory scheme, and thus constitutional, but not absolutely vital, and hence completely severable.
State after state is refusing to implement ObamaCare’s health insurance Exchanges. Republican David Merritt hopes they will “grudgingly decide” to change their minds.
Merritt is a health care adviser to Newt Gingrich. He is also a senior adviser at Leavitt Partners. Leavitt Partners is a consulting firm that makes money by helping states implement ObamaCare. In the Daily Caller, Merritt tries to persuade state officials to help implement a law they oppose.
Merritt begins his pro-Exchange argument like so: “Imagine that you’re being required to buy a car.” Would you rather choose that car yourself, he asks, or would you rather the dealer choose the car? Hmm, good question. I choose Option C: wring the neck of whoever is requiring me to buy a car. Not Merritt, though. He counsels states to choose their own “car.”
There are so many problems with this analogy that it’s hard to list them all. First, as Merritt essentially admits, states would be able to choose from such a narrow range of “cars” that it scarcely makes a difference whether they pick their own or let the feds do it. Second, states would only have to pay for their “car” if they pick it out themselves; otherwise, the feds pay for it. So Merritt is literally urging states to volunteer to pay for a “car” when the feds would otherwise hand them one for free. Finally, he says states should select their own “car” even though “no one knows what a federal [car] would look like.” How can Merritt counsel states to choose Option A if he admits he doesn’t even know what Option B is? Wouldn’t the prudent course be to wait and see? Especially since the Obama administration admits it doesn’t have the money to create Exchanges itself?
Merritt’s hypotheticals don’t make his point, either:
What makes the contraception coverage debate currently raging in Washington unusually problematic is that both sides are exactly right. Female employees who receive part of their cash compensation in the form of health benefits have the right to benefits that include FDA-approved birth control methods. Employers defined by their religious values—not just churches, synagogues, and mosques, but also thousands of hospitals, universities, and charities—should not have to compromise those values with their own money, and the government has no right to trample the First Amendment by compelling them to do so. The Obama administration’s “accommodation” —shifting the new federal requirement to the insurers who administer those organizations’ health plans—is a cynical shell game that ignores the most basic tenets of business accounting.
As the problem is no more complicated than two sets of equally valid rights in direct opposition, neither is the solution all that complicated, at least in principle: employment and health insurance should have nothing to do with each other.
Unfortunately, this arrangement—a relic of the World War II civilian wage freeze and enshrined in the tax code as soon as workers got a taste of this new-fangled “fringe benefit” of employment—is now an enduring part of the U.S. healthcare system. The entanglement of our health insurance with our employment goes a long way toward explaining not just today’s conundrum over the birth control coverage mandate, but myriad other economic distortions, market dysfunctions, and cultural conflicts that define much of what is wrong with the U.S. healthcare system.
The Obama administration’s ‘accommodation’ last week is a cynical shell game that ignores the most basic tenets of business accounting.
The otherworldy Obama Administration solution to the contraception firestorm might work politically but it makes no sense in the real world.
The President, hoping to quell a growing political firestorm, today announced a new policy that no longer requires religiously affiliated organizations to provide employees with contraception coverage in health-insurance plans.
Under the new policy, insurance companies will be required to offer free contraception for their employees and dependents. The administration’s idea is to shift the onus for the coverage from the employer to the insurer. Catholic leaders, and lots of other people, had objected to the requirement, which exempted churches but not hospitals, charities and universities with religious affiliations.
So, let’s just play a game here. The religious organization just pretends that it has nothing to do with it but the insurance company pays for it anyway. Hey, the insurance companies are rich.
Of course there is a cost. Today, contraception is almost universally covered in health insurance policies. The argument that forcing insurers to pay for it, without deductibles and copays, saves money because it avoids pregnancy costs is just plain silly.
Let me get this straight. Catholic institutions won’t have to pay for contraception coverage in their health insurance? Instead, their health insurers will provide it for free? Did I hear that right?
The President seems to have found the long elusive free lunch. If he has, hand him his Nobel Prize in Economics now; no economist will ever top that. (That would make him just the fifth person to win two Nobel Prizes. Such greatness inspires.) I am afraid that the Nobel Prize committee will have more work to do, as the free lunch will remain as scarce as the unicorn. Just bear in mind that health insurers charge different prices for all of their clients. How is anyone to know whether they are providing contraception to some Catholic institution for free? Will we have a federal agency auditing whether an insurer’s 6.743 percent price increase should have been 6.682 percent? And is this new rule even Constitutional? Since when can the government force private businesses to give away their products? I guess a government that believes it can mandate that consumers purchase contraception coverage regardless of the price also believes that it can mandate insurers set the price for contraception coverage to zero.
And suppose insurers really do provide contraception for free to Catholic institutions, but not for any others. This gives the Catholic institutions a competitive advantage in labor markets. Mr. President, may I suggest that as long as you are giving away stuff to employees at Catholic institutions, why not force Apple to give away iPads to Northwestern University employees? (Most of them voted for you and surely deserve it!) Apparently all it takes is an executive order. What did Mel Brooks say about this? Oh yeah, “It’s good to be the king.”
I didn’t vote for Barack Obama. But like a lot of Americans, I was hopeful about his presidency.
Just as it took a Republican to thaw our relationship with China, it will probably take a Democrat to reform our entitlement programs. Again and again, Obama promised to step up to the challenge. Then he left the country at the altar and pursued partisan politics instead.
Bill Clinton was going to be the first Democratic president to tackle entitlement spending. Although the effort has been completely ignored by the establishment media, Clinton was planning historic reforms during his second term. These were to include private accounts under Social Security and vouchers for Medicare.
If that doesn’t knock your socks off, you haven’t been paying attention. When Republicans propose these things, Democrats invariably claim the GOP is trying to destroy the social safety net and leave the elderly to fend for themselves.
Clinton was serious. He had his Treasury Department draw up detailed plans. In fact, when Pat Moynihan, the colorful intellectual senator from New York, was appointed by President George W. Bush to co-chair the Social Security reform commission, the first thing he did was ask the Treasury to send him the Clinton-era planning documents so that the commission could continue where Clinton’s policy team left off.
So what derailed Bill Clinton’s ambitious reform agenda? Monica Lewinsky. Left wing Democrats in Congress threatened to throw him under the bus in the impeachment proceedings unless he completely dropped the reform ideas they regarded as heresy. Unfortunately for the country, he obliged.
I have no idea which way the Supreme Court will rule this year on the Affordable Care Act. Let me go out on a limb and predict a 5-4 vote on the question of whether the individual mandate is Constitutional. Just don’t ask me which way the vote goes.
I found the recent Obama administration brief submitted to the Court on the mandate question somewhat ironic. Not surprisingly, the Obama Justice Department argued that a finding by the Court that the individual mandate is unconstitutional should not jeopardize the vast majority of the new health law.
But the Obama Justice Department did concede that there are two provisions of the Affordable Care Act that should also be declared invalid if the Court rules the individual mandate is unconstitutional—the health insurance guaranteed issue and community rating provisions.
Now, I know there are lots of other people, many of them filing briefs with the Court, that disagree arguing that the whole law needs to be found invalid because the mandate is the lynchpin for all of it. But I will suggest it is significant that the administration would appear to be building a firewall for the rest of the law as they concede these points.
But consider this potential scenario.