Critics who claim that Congress violated the U.S. Constitution by requiring Americans to carry health insurance are “flatly wrong,” the Obama administration said Wednesday in its first court defense of the landmark health care law.
Congress acted well within its power to regulate interstate commerce and to provide for the general welfare, Justice Department lawyers argued in a 46-page brief filed in federal district court in Detroit. For the courts to overturn President Obama’s signature domestic legislation would amount to unwarranted interference with the policymaking authority of Congress, they added.
The case could go all the way to the Supreme Court because more than a dozen state attorneys general have also filed suit against the legislation on broadly similar grounds. Cases are pending in federal courts in Virginia and Florida, raising the possibility that different appeals courts could issue conflicting rulings that the Supreme Court would have to resolve.
The requirement that most U.S. residents carry health insurance starting in 2014 is central to the law’s goal of coverage for all.
Because insurers would be forbidden to turn down sick people, the mandate assures that those who are healthy keep contributing to the pool. The law provides tax credits to help many middle-class households pay premiums and expands Medicaid to help the poor. While exempting those facing financial hardship from the coverage requirement, it imposes a tax penalty on those who can afford a policy but refuse to sign up.
Critics contend that Congress cannot require average citizens to purchase a particular good or service.
“Under the government’s theory, they could force anyone to purchase vitamins, join a health club, or buy a General Motors vehicle, for that matter,” said Robert Muise, a lead attorney for the Thomas More Law Center, the conservative group that filed the Michigan lawsuit March 23, the same day Mr. Obama signed the measure into law.
The Justice Department said voiding the coverage requirement would gut the health care law.
“Congress determined that the health care system in the United States is in crisis, spawning public expense and public tragedy,” said the government’s brief. “After decades of failed attempts, Congress enacted comprehensive health care reform to deal with this overwhelming national problem. The minimum coverage provision is vital to that comprehensive scheme. Enjoining it would thwart this reform and reignite the crisis that the elected branches of government acted to forestall.”
Government lawyers argued that a decision to opt out of health insurance is not merely a matter of personal choice. It has consequences for everybody. Uninsured people will get sick, or have accidents, and someone must pay for their care if they can’t afford it.
“Individual decisions to forgo insurance coverage, in the aggregate, substantially affect interstate commerce by shifting costs to health providers and the public,” the Justice Department said.
People who remain uninsured by choice “have not opted out of health care; they are not passive bystanders divorced from the health care market,” the government continued. “They have made a choice regarding the method of payment for the services they hope to receive, no less ‘active’ than a decision to pay by credit card rather than by check.”
Regarding the tax penalty for refusing to get coverage, the Obama administration argued that it falls squarely within the authority of Congress to levy taxes.
The Thomas More Law Center is seeking an injunction to block the coverage requirement. Its response to the government is expected June 1.