Health insurance mandate like broccoli? Judge wants to knowby Dara Kam | December 16th, 2010
A federal judge in Pensacola hearing oral arguments in a key lawsuit over the federal health care law this morning repeatedly questioned lawyers about whether the federal government was overreaching its authority by forcing individuals to purchase health insurance or pay a fine.
U.S. District Judge Roger Vinson wanted to know if the health care law set a precedent allowing Congress to pass laws about anything that has an economic impact.
Congress could decide that “everybody needs to eat broccoli” because that would make them healthier and thereby reduce health care costs, Vinson proposed.
“If they decided that everybody needs to eat broccoli because broccoli is healthy they could mandate that everybody has to buy a certain amount of broccoli each week,” he asked David Rivkin, a lawyer for Florida Attorney General Bill McCollum and the 19 other states suing the federal government over the law.
Rivkin said that allowing the law to stand would give Congress the power to pass “an infinite variety of mandates…because we’re spending zillions of dollars on health care.”
But U.S. Department of Justice lawyer Ian Gershengorn, defending the law, disagreed.
“It is not shoes. It is not cars. It is not broccoli. It is a means for paying for something,” Gershengorn said.
Lawyers for both sides argued two main issues for more than two hours today in Vinson’s Pensacola courtroom.
The first deals with whether the federal government exceeded its authority granted under the U.S. Constitution’s commerce clause limiting powers to the federal government. Opponents of the measure, including McCollum and the National Federation of Independent Businesses, argue that the commerce clause does not give the federal government the authority to force individuals to purchase products.
The second issue is whether changes to the Medicaid program included in the law violate the 10th Amendment (the supremacy clause) establishing states’ rights and barring the federal government from coercing states into doing something.
Florida Assistant Attorney General Blaine Winship argued that the changes to Medicaid in the new law are so sweeping that Congress essentially created a new program. And he said that states can’t walk away from the program that provides health care for the poor, elderly and pregnant women.
“They knew that they had a stick in their hand” and created an act “that depended on states staying in. They knew the states were stuck,” Winship said.
But Vinson pointed out that several states, including Texas, are considering dropping out of the program.
And Gershengorn said that just because the costs of Medicaid will grow under the new law doesn’t mean the federal government has overreached its authority.
“It is not the case that when the grant gets big enough the federal government no longer gets to set the terms,” he argued.