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Robert Reich

Obama could turn a health-care loss into a win

If the Supreme Court decides the individual health-care mandate is unconstitutional, Obama's plans for reform begin to unravel. But with a little political maneuvering, he can turn such a defeat into a victory.

By Guest blogger / March 27, 2012

An opponent of U.S. President Barack Obama's health care reform wears a glove outside the Supreme Court in Washington, March 27, 2012, during the second day of legal arguments over the Affordable Care Act.Reich argues that even if Obama's individual health care mandate is declared unconstitutional, all is not lost for health care reform.

Jason Reed/Reuters/File

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Not surprisingly, today’s debut Supreme Court argument over the so-called “individual mandate” requiring everyone to buy health insurance revolved around epistemological niceties such as the meaning of a “tax,” and the question of whether the issue is ripe for review.

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Robert is chancellor’s professor of public policy at the University of California at Berkeley. He has served in three national administrations, most recently as secretary of labor under President Clinton. Time Magazine named him one of the 10 most effective cabinet secretaries of the last century. He has written 13 books, including “The Work of Nations,” his latest best-seller “Aftershock: The Next Economy and America’s Future," and a new e-book, “Beyond Outrage.” His new movie, "Inequality for All," is available on Netflix. He is also a founding editor of the American Prospect magazine and chairman of Common Cause.

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Behind this judicial foreplay is the brute political fact that if the Court decides the individual mandate is an unconstitutional extension of federal authority, the entire law starts unraveling.

But with a bit of political jujitsu, the President could turn any such defeat into a victory for a single-payer healthcare system – Medicare for all. 

Here’s how.

The dilemma at the heart of the new law is that it continues to depend on private health insurers, who have to make a profit or at least pay all their costs including marketing and advertising.

Yet the only way private insurers can afford to cover everyone with pre-existing health problems, as the new law requires, is to have every American buy health insurance – including young and healthier people who are unlikely to rack up large healthcare costs.

This dilemma is the product of political compromise. You’ll remember the Administration couldn’t get the votes for a single-payer system such as Medicare for all. It hardly tried. Not a single Republican would even agree to a bill giving Americans the option of buying into it.

But don’t expect the Supreme Court to address this dilemma. It lies buried under an avalanche of constitutional argument.

Those who are defending the law in Court say the federal government has authority to compel Americans to buy health insurance under the Commerce Clause of the Constitution, which gives Washington the power to regulate interstate commerce. They argue our sprawling health insurance system surely extends beyond an individual state.

Those who are opposing the law say a requirement that individuals contract with private insurance companies isn’t regulation of interstate commerce. It’s coercion of individuals.

Unhappily for Obama and the Democrats, most Americans don’t seem to like the individual mandate very much anyway. Many on the political right believe it a threat to individual liberty. Many on the left object to being required to buy something from a private company.

The President and the Democrats could have avoided this dilemma in the first place if they’d insisted on Medicare for all, or at least a public option.

After all, Social Security and Medicare require every working American to “buy” them. The purchase happens automatically in the form of a deduction from everyone’s paychecks. But because Social Security and Medicare are government programs financed by payroll taxes they don’t feel like mandatory purchases.

Americans don’t mind mandates in the form of payroll taxes for Social Security or Medicare. In fact, both programs are so popular even conservative Republicans were heard to shout “don’t take away my Medicare!” at rallies opposed to the new health care law.

There’s no question payroll taxes are constitutional, because there’s no doubt that the federal government can tax people in order to finance particular public benefits. But requiring citizens to buy something from a private company is different because private companies aren’t directly accountable to the public. They’re accountable to their owners and their purpose is to maximize profits. What if they monopolize the market and charge humongous premiums? (Some already seem to be doing this.)

Even if private health insurers are organized as not-for-profits, there’s still a problem of public accountability. What’s to prevent top executives from being paid small fortunes? (In more than a few cases this is already happening.)

Moreover, compared to private insurance, Medicare is a great deal. Its administrative costs are only around 3 percent, while the administrative costs of private insurers eat up 30 to 40 percent of premiums. Medicare’s costs are even below the 5 percent to 10 percent administrative costs borne by large companies that self-insure, and under the 11 percent costs of private plans under Medicare Advantage, the current private-insurance option under Medicare.

So why not Medicare for all?

Because Republicans have mastered the art of political jujitsu. Their strategy has been to demonize government and seek to privatize everything that might otherwise be a public program financed by tax dollars (see Paul Ryan’s plan for turning Medicare into vouchers). Then they go to court and argue that any mandatory purchase is unconstitutional because it exceeds the government’s authority.

Obama and the Democrats should do the reverse. If the Supreme Court strikes down the individual mandate in the new health law, private insurers will swarm Capitol Hill demanding that the law be amended to remove the requirement that they cover people with pre-existing conditions.

When this happens, Obama and the Democrats should say they’re willing to remove that requirement – but only if Medicare is available to all, financed by payroll taxes.

If they did this the public will be behind them — as will the Supreme Court.

The Christian Science Monitor has assembled a diverse group of the best economy-related bloggers out there. Our guest bloggers are not employed or directed by the Monitor and the views expressed are the bloggers' own, as is responsibility for the content of their blogs. To contact us about a blogger, click here. This post originally ran on www.robertreich.org.

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