Obama Lawyers Defend Health-Care Law at U.S. High Court

Donald Verrill, U.S. Solicitor General
U.S. Solicitor General Donald Verrilli speaks in front of the U.S. Supreme Court in 2008. “Congress has wide latitude when deciding how best to achieve its constitutional objectives, and its decision to adopt a minimum-coverage provision was eminently reasonable,” Verrilli argued about the 2010 health-care law. Photo: Paul J. Richards/AFP/Getty Images

The Obama administration defended the 2010 health-care law and its requirement that people obtain insurance, telling the U.S. Supreme Court that the measure addressed a “crisis in the national health-care market.”

In the first of several rounds of briefs that will be filed before the justices hear arguments in late March, the government argued that Congress could enact the so-called individual mandate under its constitutional authority to regulate interstate commerce.

“Congress has wide latitude when deciding how best to achieve its constitutional objectives, and its decision to adopt a minimum-coverage provision was eminently reasonable,” argued U.S. Solicitor General Donald Verrilli, the administration’s top Supreme Court advocate.

Opponents of the law, including a group of 26 states led by Florida, contend that Congress exceeded that authority by requiring people to buy insurance even if they say they want to pay their own health expenses or don’t plan to ever seek medical care. People who don’t comply with the provision, which takes effect in 2014, must pay a penalty.

Those opponents today told the court that a decision striking down the mandate should prompt the justices to invalidate the entire measure, known as the Affordable Care Act.

“Without the individual mandate at its heart, no statute remotely resembling the act would or could have been enacted,” the National Federation of Independent Business argued in court papers. A group of 36 Republican members of the U.S. Senate also filed a brief calling on the justices to throw out the whole law if the coverage requirement is unconstitutional.

Three-Day Argument

The law would expand coverage to an estimated 32 million Americans who lack insurance, largely through an expansion of the federal-state Medicaid program for the poor and by setting up “exchanges,” in which consumers will be able to buy insurance.

The court will hear arguments March 26-28. The justices have scheduled 5 1/2 hours for the arguments, an unusually large amount of time at a court that typically holds one-hour argument sessions.

Federal appeals courts are divided on whether Congress can require insurance under its interstate commerce authority, with two upholding the law, a third declaring it unconstitutional and a fourth saying that a definitive ruling would be premature.

The Obama administration argues that uninsured people inevitably need medical care -- and shift billions of dollars in costs onto other participants in the system. The administration says the individual mandate will help keep premiums low, offsetting provisions that require insurers to offer coverage to sick people at the same rates as other customers.

In a separate line of argument, the government points to Congress’s constitutional power to impose taxes, calling that an independent source of authority for the mandate and penalty.

The cases are National Federation of Independent Business v. Sebelius, 11-393; Department of Health and Human Services v. Florida, 11-398; and Florida v. Department of Health and Human Services, 11-400.

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