With health care reform reaching its first birthday last week, lots of attention was devoted to the fact that President Barack Obama’s signature legislative achievement contains an individual mandate requiring everybody to have officially approved health insurance.
Twenty-eight states are challenging the constitutionality of the individual mandate, and so far two federal district court judges have agreed that the provision is unconstitutional. Two judges upheld Obamacare, but neither seemed in a hurry for the issue to go to higher courts. Even so, it appears all but certain the law will go before the nine justices of the U.S. Supreme Court sometime in the next year or so.
But there is another federal mandate on a similar legal trajectory, and it also concerns what Washington, D.C., can require individual citizens to do with regard to government health care.
This case is Hall v. Sebelius, which was filed in September 2008. It was brought by a trio of senior citizens who preferred to keep their private hospitalization insurance rather than accepting Medicare coverage. They didn’t ask the government to return their substantial Medicare tax payments, they just wanted to be allowed not to be covered by the program. They did, however, ask to remain in Social Security.
The Department of Health and Human Services said no, citing a Medicare marketing brochure — not a properly promulgated regulation, much less a federal statute — created in 1993 during President Bill Clinton’s administration.
Last week, a federal district court judge dismissed the suit, saying the "plaintiffs are trapped in a government program intended for their benefit. They disagree and wish to escape. The Court can find no loophole or requirement that the Secretary provide such a pathway."
In other words, with Social Security comes a federal mandate that recipients must also accept Medicare. By that logic, what is to stop the government from also requiring Social Security recipients to accept food stamps or any other federal benefit bureaucrats decide to expand?
That’s exactly the point raised by the plaintiffs, according to their attorney.
"Anyone concerned with what will happen when the bureaucrats start writing the thousands of pages of rules that will govern the ‘Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act’ need only look at what has happened in Hall v. Sebelius," said Kent Masterson Brown, the lead attorney in the case. "When they do, they will realize nothing will be optional and there will be no fair, affordable or swift manner to obtain recourse or appeal a decision made by the bureaucracy."
U.S. District Judge Rosemary Collyer’s decision, Brown said, "provides a novel, new interpretation of what a federal ‘entitlement’ is. Based on her ruling, an entitlement is now an obligation. If an individual is entitled to certain federal benefits, he or she under this decision would now be obligated to accept them. A low-income family, hypothetically, could be required to accept housing and food assistance if that family qualifies — even if the members of that household have objections to accepting public assistance. That, in effect, is the meaning of this ruling."
The Constitution knows nothing of such mandates, and the Supreme Court ought to waste no time in taking up Obamacare and Hall v. Sebelius.