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.
Back in 2009, when the Affordable Care Act was being written, few doubted that Congress can constitutionally impose a tax penalty on people who refuse to carry adequate insurance. Congress’s power to regulate insurance markets under the Constitution’s commerce clause is settled law. While it seemed clear that Congress has the constitutional power to mandate coverage, some doubted the political wisdom of using that power. Simply forcing people to buy insurance seemed too much like a mean parent saying “eat-your-broccoli, or no dessert.” The mandate, it was feared, would arouse needless opposition. The opposition was needless because most people could be encouraged to buy coverage with positive incentives to enroll, such as direct subsidies, and penalties for refusal to enroll, such as extended denial of access to subsidies and exclusion from insurance market protections.
To the surprise of many, opponents of the Affordable Care Act took the broccoli analogy literally. Not buying insurance is simply inactivity, they argued. If government can prohibit this form of inactivity by forcing people to buy insurance, it can force them to buy anything, even broccoli. If Congress can prohibit such ‘inaction,’ they argued, freedom is in jeopardy. More to the point, the constitution doesn’t allow limits on ‘inactivity.’
The appeal to the broad public of the argument that not buying insurance is inactivity may not have been surprising. But the acceptance of the argument by some federal judges is downright astounding, as the distinction rests on a fundamental ignorance of how insurance markets work.
Those challenging the ACA in court profess deep concern about government forcing citizens to buy insurance or pay a fine. The fundamental harm here is monetary; it’s about being required to purchase insurance, not to use it (or to get any medical care at all).
If the Court agrees with them, why can’t there be a parallel monetary right not to be bankrupted by health care costs? In the 1973 case San Antonio School District v. Rodriguez, the Supreme Court decided, by a 5-4 vote, that children did not have a constitutional right to education. But at that time, at least four justices thought the state was obliged to make a decent education available to all. Why can’t a future Court do the same for health care?
If the current Supreme Court were to declare the ACA unconstitutional, it would need to abandon several landmark precedents. That’s not a problem for the Roberts Court; it’s already jettisoned once-venerable holdings on campaign finance, equal protection, antitrust, and voting rights.
For many Americans in these tough economic times, rights to education, housing, health care, and food are a lot more meaningful than the right to be free of an insurance mandate. We the people can locate these ideals in a Constitution and a Declaration of Independence rich with grand and sweeping language. If the ACA’s opponents can use our nation’s founding texts to undermine the ACA, those who care about meeting basic human needs need to gear up to use them to do quite a bit more.
2013 may be the most significant year in health care policy ever.
But we have to get through 2012 first.
Once the 2012 election results are in there will be the very real opportunity to address a long list of health care issues.
If Republicans win, the top of the list will include “repealing and replacing” the Affordable Care Act. If Obama is reelected, but Republicans capture both houses of Congress, we can still expect a serious effort to change the law. Then there is the granddaddy of all problems, the federal debt. The 2012 elections could well prepare the way for entitlement reform—particularly for Medicare and Medicaid. Even if Obama is reelected, the 2013 agenda will include a serious debate about Republican ideas to change Medicare into a premium support system and block grant Medicaid to the states.
If the election is a draw with neither side able to unilaterally move their agenda—likely in the form of Obama still in the White House but facing a Republican Congress, the pressure to deal with the growing costs of Medicare and Medicaid as well as nagging concerns about the implementation of the Affordable Care Act will create an imperative for action in 2013.
As the New Year begins, I look forward to reading and commenting on the latest developments in health economics. I thought I would start by making a few predictions:
1) With the economy on a slow but steady road to recovery, Republicans will resurrect health reform as a key issue in the fall election. They run a controversial ad showing a patient named Debbie getting diagnosed by her iPhone’s Siri. In response, Democrats show Debbie filing for bankruptcy because her insurance refused to pay for Siri’s consultation fee.
2) The Supreme Court will uphold the purchase mandate in the Affordable Care Act. Lobbyists for every major industry flood Congress with requests for more purchase mandates.
3) Healthcare continues to be a bright spot in a sluggish labor market. As a way to simultaneously address persistent unemployment and the growing needs of the elderly, Nancy Pelosi proposes a new law mandating that all baby boomers purchase a caregiver for their parents.
4) CMS will release new revised rules for ACOs. The new rules discourage ACOs from only covering patients in good health by reducing reimbursements for patients who are able to lift the new 1200 page ACO rulebook.
I think the world of Jon Gruber, the MIT economist who helped design both the Massachusetts Health Plan and the Health Insurance Exchange provisions of President Obama’s Affordable Care Act. So I was more than a bit dismayed to read this quote from Jon: “I’m frustrated that the future of the American health care system rests in the hands of one or two of these unelected people who might make the decision based on political grounds.” The “unelected people” that Jon is referring to are justices of the Supreme Court. Jon almost seems surprised that the Supreme Court has a say in the matter.
The Health Insurance Exchange is an idea that economists have floated for more than three decades and thanks to his hard work, that idea has become a reality in Massachusetts and perhaps the rest of the nation, provided that the Supreme Court doesn’t block this fine bit of economics. Unfortunately for supporters of the exchange (including myself) the health insurance purchase mandate – an essential element of any economically viable exchange – might be unconstitutional. God forbid that the U.S. Constitution might interfere with beautiful economic theories.
There is a solution. I am almost too modest to say it but I proposed this idea in my book Code Red long before Barack Obama put his hand on the bible to be sworn in as Regulator-in-Chief. The beauty of the solution is that it respects, nay, was inspired by Jon’s work in Massachusetts, and is constitutional to boot! The solution is in its own way conservative, because it does not mandate a single approach to health reform. Congress should have given each state a block grant conditional on expanding health insurance coverage. The states could have chosen how to proceed. The U.S. Constitution might prohibit a federal mandate to purchase insurance, but it says nothing about what the states may do.
Some states might have chosen to adopt their own versions of the Massachusetts Health Plan. A few states may have centralized insurance, creating their own versions of single payer systems. Others may have given individuals vouchers and encouraged the growth of private insurance exchanges. This would be the closest to a free market solution, keeping the government out of it, except as a vehicle for transferring wealth. Perhaps all of these ideas would have been better than the status quo. Perhaps states could have learned from each other. Even Jon Gruber might have learned something new! Through this experimentation, we could have rapidly expanded health insurance coverage and also put lots of theories to the test. I still think this is a terrific idea. But in 2009 when politicians and economists huddled together to write the Affordable Care Act, no one invited me to the party. Alas. Continue reading…
On November 14, 2011, the Supreme Court decided to review a decision of the Eleventh Circuit Court of Appeals striking down the minimum coverage requirement of the Affordable Care Act (ACA) as unconstitutional. The case will probably be argued before the Court in March and decided in the early summer.
Procedurally, the Court “granted certiorari.” This means that it agreed to review certain questions raised by the certiorari petitions presented by the various parties in the Florida case, including the plaintiffs who challenged the constitutionality of the Affordable Care Act — 26 states, the National Federation of Independent Business, and two private individuals — and the federal government, which defended the Act’s constitutionality. The Eleventh Circuit had ruled against the federal government on the question of whether the minimum coverage requirement of the ACA is constitutional, but had ruled against the plaintiffs on all other issues.
The Supreme Court did not rule on certiorari petitions pending before it from the Virginia, Liberty University, and Thomas More cases, two of which rejected a challenge to the ACA on jurisdictional grounds and the other of which held the minimum coverage requirement to be constitutional. (The Virginia petition was not yet before the Court, as it was filed later than the others). The fact that the Court only granted petitions in the Florida case probably signals nothing about the Court’s ultimate decision, as the Florida case raises all of the issues raised by the other cases and reviewing additional cases would have merely made the case more complex administratively.
Any ruling by the Supreme Court on the constitutionality of the Affordable Care Act’s controversial individual mandate isn’t likely for at least another several months, but it’s worth thinking about what might happen after the case is decided. The first scenario is easy: If the Court upholds the mandate, the ACA goes forward as planned to the continued objections of many conservative Americans and politicians. The second scenario is less clear: If the Court finds the mandate unconstitutional, do they find it severable from the rest of the law? If not, they’ll strike the whole ACA down. This seems like the least likely outcome. If, on the other hand, they do invoke severability, the ball is back in the White House’s court. The decision at that point would be whether or not health reform can be successful without the individual mandate.
The concern here is the death spiral first described by Nobel Prize-winning economist Joseph Stiglitz. In essence, if we don’t require everyone to buy insurance, then insurance will be disproportionately purchased by the sick, making it more expensive and leading many to discontinue coverage in a continuous cycle that drives the price higher and higher until no one can afford insurance any more and the system collapses. By contrast, getting everyone into the pool is seen as the only way to keep costs down and maintain the insurance system. So the question is: What happens if the Supreme Court strikes down the individual mandate? Does the Obama adminsitration wash its hands of health reform, proclaiming that it can’t be done without the individual mandate because costs will rise too rapidly and the insurance system will collapse, or does it forge onward and see what happens?
Serendipity is not a word one usually associates with the present raucous debate over the “individual mandate” of the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act. Democrats tend to support both the mandate and the PPACA, while Republicans tend to oppose both. However, this “between the devil and the deep blue sea” approach, whereby one makes a Hobson’s choice between being tyrannized by a government command to buy health insurance, or seeing no comprehensive health reform enacted in a country that needs it, is a false dichotomy, serendipitously enough.
The PPACA offers comprehensive reform, including welcoming features such as guaranteed issue of insurance regardless of preexisting medical conditions. However, the fact that the PPACA has valuable features doesn’t automatically legalize any possible measure designed to fund the Act, including coerced health insurance purchase. As former Vermont governor Howard Dean noted in August 2010 on MSNBC’s The Daily Rundown, Vermont enacted a successful state health care program without an individual mandate; Dean emphasized, “And people don’t like to be told what to do.” This latter factor is not negligible in a country with a statue in New York Harbor dedicated to liberty. (Perhaps this is why a June 9, 2011 CNN poll shows 54% of Americans opposed to the mandate, and other polls report similarly.)
Our American liberty has various constitutional and legal underpinnings which can defend people from the federal individual mandate, and maybe even from state individual mandates. As for Congress’ power to tax for the general welfare: taxes and penalties, such as the “Shared Responsibility Payment”, the PPACA financial penalty for refusal to buy health insurance, are not just interchangeable “economic incentives”.
I’m not an attorney, so I cannot help the federal judges struggling to figure out whether the individual insurance mandate in President Obama’s healthcare law violates the interstate commerce clause of the U.S. Constitution. But as a taxpayer (and formerly a professor of public policy), it’s hard for me to understand what all the fuss is about.
The Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act created a monetary incentive for all taxpayers to obtain health insurance. Beginning in 2014, people without insurance will pay more to the IRS than people with insurance. Like the tax code as a whole, the rules for calculating the size of the penalty are incredibly complex. But once the penalty is fully activated in 2016, a single individual with no dependents will pay an extra $695, or 2.5% of his or her applicable income, whichever is higher. An uninsured family of four with annual income of less than $110,000 will typically pay $2,085 more than it would if insured.
This tax penalty is known as “the individual mandate.” It’s an important part of the new law because starting in 2014, insurers are prohibited from denying coverage or charging higher rates based on preexisting conditions. Without the mandate, people might wait to buy insurance until they needed medical care. To keep insurance affordable for patients and profitable for insurers, healthy people need to pay for coverage before they get sick.
Various courts have viewed the tax penalty in different ways. But some have concluded that it is a huge encroachment on individual rights. As a ruling from the U.S. 11th Circuit Court of Appeals put it, “This economic mandate represents a wholly novel and potentially unbounded assertion of congressional authority: the ability to compel Americans to purchase an expensive health insurance product they have elected not to buy.”