Appeals Court Hears Challenge To Health Care Law

Jun 9, 2011
Originally published on June 9, 2011 12:54 pm
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Let's follow up now on the constitutional challenges to President Obama's health care law. Yesterday, a federal appeals court in Atlanta heard oral arguments in a case brought by 26 states that want to stop the legislation.

In January, a Florida judge agreed with the states and ruled that the whole law should be scrapped. NPR's Debbie Elliott reports on yesterday's proceedings in Atlanta.

DEBBIE ELLIOTT: At issue is just how far the government can go to make sure that everyone has access to health coverage. The new law requires Americans to buy medical insurance or face a financial penalty. Chief Judge Joel Dubina presided over the three-judge panel that heard the Obama administration's appeal.

Judge JOEL DUBINA (11th U.S. Circuit�Court of Appeals): If we uphold the individual mandate in this case, are there any limits on Congress' power left?

Mr. NEAL KATYAL (Solicitor General): Absolutely, Chief Justice Dubina.

ELLIOTT: Solicitor General Neal Katyal argued the government's case, saying that Congress acted within the bounds of the commerce clause when it required Americans to buy health insurance as part of a broad overhaul of the nation's healthcare system - the so-called mandate. By choosing not to buy coverage, he says, people still impact the broader market because they are likely to need care no matter what.

Mr. KATYAL: Every single person can't guarantee that they won't need healthcare at some point in the future. Someone can walk out of this courtroom and get hit by a bus or get struck by cancer.

ELLIOTT: And if they can't pay for their care, he says, the cost shifts to everyone else in the healthcare market.

Mr. KATYAL: Everyone is invariably consuming the good and it's a question of who's going to pay for it. It's about the failure to pay, not the failure to buy.

ELLIOTT: But the states argue that's a dangerously broad interpretation of commerce.

Mr. PAUL CLEMENT (Former Solicitor General): They're not engaged in commerce. They're sitting in their living rooms. They're not doing anything.

ELLIOTT: Former solicitor general Paul Clement argued on behalf of the 26 state attorneys general and governors who sued to block the Affordable Care Act.

Mr. CLEMENT: It boils down to the question of whether or not the federal government can compel an individual to engage in commerce, the better to regulate the individual.

ELLIOTT: A business group joined in the state lawsuit to challenge what it sees as a threat to individual liberties. Karen Harned with the National Federation of Independent Business says the case has constitutional implications beyond the healthcare debate.

Ms. KAREN HARNED (National Federation of Independent Business): For the small business owners I represent, this really isn't even just about healthcare anymore. It's about the fact that if government can require you to buy health insurance, what can it not require you to do?

ELLIOTT: But advocates for the new law argue healthcare is unique, and the mandate to buy insurance is tied to needed changes in the system. Former solicitor general Walter Dellinger watched the arguments on behalf of the Center for American Progress.

Mr. WALTER DELLINGER (Center for American Progress): One of the most popular provisions in the law goes down if the mandate goes down. And that is the provision that says insurance companies cannot deny people coverage because of their present or preexisting medical condition because they have a child born with a birth defect or they've lost their job and need a new insurance policy. Those provisions would go down, as well.

ELLIOTT: This case is one of several now pending in federal courts around the country. But it's clear the larger question will ultimately be decided by the U.S. Supreme Court.

Debbie Elliott, NPR News, Atlanta.� Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.