The Affordable Care Act faced a possibly fatal challenge when the constitutionality of its individual mandate provision was argued in the Supreme Court.
Much of the terrain was easy going. Neither the justices nor the lawyers doubted that the healthcare and healthcare insurance markets involve interstate commerce — insurance and healthcare providers are usually national or at least regional operations, folks who cross state lines get sick and must be cared for away from home regularly, and people are often unable to relocate to another state for fear of losing employer-based coverage. Nor was it disputed that the mandate was sincerely motivated by and closely related to the regulation of these interstate markets. Those two conclusions are usually sufficient to justify the exercise of congressional power under the commerce clause of the Constitution.
But then things got more treacherous. The problem, suggested by numerous questions from the conservative justices on the court, was the slippery slope they saw created by the mandate — the idea that Congress was requiring individuals to buy something. If the feds can require each person to buy health insurance, what can’t they force people to purchase?
Soon the healthcare blogosphere will be filled with reactions to the Supreme Court decision on the Affordable Care Act. Rather than see my own blog lost amidst hundreds of others, I thought it best to preempt the competition, so to speak, and offer my reactions now.
The 5-4 decision should not have surprised anyone. Many Americans will conclude (and not without reason) that most justices based their vote on whether they supported the ACA and not on whether its provisions violated the Constitution. I also have little doubt that as we move forward, many Americans will blame the court’s majority and their political allies if healthcare spending continues to rise unabated.
The justices offered thought provoking arguments on both sides of the case. While the media has focused on a couple of snarky comments written by Justice Scalia, I was particularly struck by an economic argument made by Justice Ginsberg. She notes that there is no meaningful economic difference between collecting a general tax from the entire population and then offering a rebate to individuals who purchase a specific good, and collecting a limited tax from individuals who do not purchase that good.