Tuesday, February 1, 2011

Will the Federal Courts Pave the Way for Single-Payer National Health Insurance?

The score over the constitutionality of last year's federal health insurance reform is 2 - 2. Two federal courts have ruled it's constitutional and two more have decided that at least part of it isn't. The feature on which disapproving judges focused is the requirement beginning in 2014 that the uninsured buy individual coverage. The government contends that this requirement is permitted by the Constitution's Commerce Clause (which allows Congress to regulate matters affecting interstate commerce). Opponents assert that the law purports to regulate inaction--being uninsured--and that inaction isn't commerce.

Proponents respond that life is more complicated than that. As a society, we don't toss the uninsured in the gutter, to die slow, painful, lingering deaths. Instead, they are treated, and if they can't pay cash (which is very often the case), the cost of their care is borne by the rest of us in the forms of higher hospital charges, larger co-pays and deductibles, and steeper health insurance premiums. This imposition of costs on paying patients has interstate impact, and consequently allows federal health insurance reform under the Commerce Clause, proponents contend.

The final word on constitutionality rests with the U.S. Supreme Court. Given the split among lower courts, the Supremes will almost surely take the issue. Predicting the weather is easier than figuring out how the Supremes will rule.

It's interesting to consider that, if the Big Court gives the new law a thumbs down, it may well pave the way for a single-payer national health insurance system. Even if a federal requirement for an individual to buy health insurance goes beyond Congress' constitutional authority, a taxpayer funded single-payer, comprehensive national health insurance program would surely be constitutional. We already have such a system for Americans 65 and older (it's called Medicare), and another such system for many with low incomes (called Medicaid).

Today's Republican controlled House would strenuously resist a single-payer system. But the naysayers have no serious alternative. The baseline problem for Republicans (and those Democrats who voted against last year's health insurance reform) is that no one, not conservatives, moderates or liberals, want the system we had before last year's reform. That "system," with its hodge-podge, hit-or-miss, luck of the draw "coverage," left tens of millions uninsured, tens of millions more underinsured, and numerous Americans going without treatment until their problems became severe enough for an emergency room visit, where others (i.e., the insured) would pick up the high costs of the uninsureds' care. If last year's reform is tossed out by the courts, there will be enormous political pressure for an alternative. The Republicans, who have been singularly feckless in improving the health insurance system, will find themselves losing favor with an electorate struggling for coverage. This is one issue where the party of No will have to rethink its message. Reality is that we'll have health insurance reform one way or another, if not now, then pretty soon.

Last year's health insurance reform was a rather complex political compromise designed to make Americans face a simple fact of health insurance: it's fairest and most sensible when everyone contributes to the cost. (That's why state laws require all motor vehicles to be insured.) If last year's reform doesn't survive judicial review, a single-payer national health insurance system may be the one alternative sure to withstand constitutional challenge. Other alternatives would be much more complex, and therefore exposed to legal challenge (when it comes to the law, complexity begats litigation and simplicity tends to avoid it).

Many taxpayers may not like a comprehensive, single-payer system because of fears of rising costs. But those rising costs are already smacking those of us who are insured, through our premiums, co-pays and deductibles. The rising costs are less a function of the insurance system we have than of expensive advances in medical technology and the extensive care sometimes given the very elderly. Dealing with these issues involves difficult ethical questions, but leaving people uninsured won't solve these problems.

A ruling against last year's reform will likely limit Congress' options for the structure of a replacement program. It won't persuade voters to accept a return to the Dickensian grimness of the status quo ante. If last year's reform is struck down, the single-payer national program may well rise up from last year's ashes. This probably wouldn't be what the federal judges ruling against the reform intend, but we often get what we don't intend.

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