Broccoli, cellphones and the Obama healthcare law

WASHINGTON Tue Mar 27, 2012 5:59pm EDT

Supporters of U.S. President Barack Obama's health care reform rally outside the Supreme Court in Washington, March 27, 2012, during the second day of legal arguments over the Affordable Care Act. REUTERS/Jason Reed

Supporters of U.S. President Barack Obama's health care reform rally outside the Supreme Court in Washington, March 27, 2012, during the second day of legal arguments over the Affordable Care Act.

Credit: Reuters/Jason Reed

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WASHINGTON (Reuters) - If Congress has the power to require that Americans obtain health insurance, U.S. Supreme Court justices on Tuesday asked hypothetical questions on what would be next - insisting that people eat broccoli, buy a cellphone or get burial insurance?

During a second day of arguments over President Barack Obama's 2010 healthcare law, conservative Chief Justice John Roberts likened healthcare services for the sick to such emergency services as police, fire and ambulance assistance.

"You don't know when you're going to need it. You're not sure that you will. But the same is true for healthcare," Roberts said.

At issue in the courtroom was whether Congress has the power to require people to buy medical insurance or face a penalty - a key provision of the law championed by Obama. Opponents say no - and have suggested it would open the door to government demands on people, some of them involving exaggerated hypotheticals.

"So can the government require you to buy a cellphone because that would facilitate responding when you need emergency services? You can just dial 911 no matter where you are?" asked Roberts.

U.S. Solicitor General Donald Verrilli, defending the law as the Obama administration's top courtroom lawyer, replied that would be different.

He said the healthcare market was different because those without insurance would need healthcare services also at some point, shifting the costs to those who had insurance.

Conservative Justice Antonin Scalia picked up on the argument, long made by opponents of the law, that Congress next could require that everyone purchase broccoli.

"Everybody has to buy food sooner or later, so you define the market as food. Therefore, everybody is in the market. Therefore, you can make people buy broccoli," he said.

Verrilli replied that broccoli was different from healthcare.

Later in the arguments, liberal Justice Stephen Breyer appeared to have had his fill of the broccoli questions and cited several limiting principles on what Congress could do.

"It seems to me all of those eliminate the broccoli possibility, and none of them eliminates the possibility that we are trying to take the 40 million people who do have the medical cost, who do affect interstate commerce and provide a system that you may like or not like," Breyer told one of the lawyers challenging the law.

The 40 million people he mentioned was a reference to the number of Americans without any health insurance in a country of more than 310 million.

Conservative Justice Samuel Alito asked about burial services, saying that if young people can be required to get health insurance under the law, why could they not be required to get burial insurance?

"You can get burial insurance. You can get health insurance. Most people are going to need healthcare, almost everybody. Everybody is going to be buried or cremated at some point," Alito said.

Verrilli again rejected the comparison and replied that was different.

(Reporting by James Vicini; Editing by Howard Goller and Will Dunham)

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Comments (3)
TwincamAlfa wrote:
Silly justices. They overlooked the most obvious thing: taxes. The govt employs coercion and threats to make citizens pay. Taxes pay these jokers’ salaries and likely provide them with top-notch health care.

Enforced diets of broccoli? I think not. I’d fire these nerds and eliminate the whole department.

Mar 27, 2012 6:28pm EDT  --  Report as abuse
gateur wrote:
To accept the administration’s argument, you must believe that insurance is the ONLY way to pay for health care. In fact, there is also the option of paying cash or borrowing. Many major purchases are financed and paid for after the purchase, why not health care? If this is allowed to stand, then what major purchase couldn’t American’s be forced to pre-pay through a group payment agreement?

Everyone uses health care sometime, goes the argument. Well, everyone uses furniture. Everyone uses transportation. Everyone uses clothes. Will the administration next create a department of pre-payment where everyone turns over their entire wage to the administration’s corporate cronies for further distribution so we can all just go pick out whatever furniture, transportation vehicle, and clothes we want?

This is a slippery slope that will put the Federal government in charge of all purchases, regardless of whether anyone wants to make those purchases. Total and absolute control over the economy. Recession? No problem. Just force everyone to buy stuff using their buyers insurance. Yes, they will be able to do it. They’ll claim its for national security or something like that. But you will no longer be in control of your own finances. Whenever their corporate cronies want to kick up their stock price, the government will be able to step in and force additional purchases.

Mar 27, 2012 6:39pm EDT  --  Report as abuse
The difference that both gateur above me and the REPUBLICAN judges in the supreme court are missing is the key difference in the argument between health care and all other markets.

When you don’t buy broccoli, the price of healthy food does not get passed on to the taxpayer.

When you don’t buy a cell phone, the cost of data plans don’t go up for the people who do.

When you don’t buy health insurance, the cost of health care goes up for every tax-paying American. That is what the individual mandate fixes, and why it’s different from every other market.

IDEALLY, we would have universal health care and then this argument would be moot. But that would be socialism, and we don’t like socialism here, just like we hate our police officers, firefighters, army, navy, airforce, schools, libraries, roads, bridges, subways, buses, post office, radio, television, and unemployment checks, right?

Mar 28, 2012 10:24am EDT  --  Report as abuse
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