Obamacare's mandate to buy insurance: Is it an eat-your-broccoli sort of thing?

Federal Judge Roger Vinson adds some color to the debate over the individual mandate in the health-care law. He likens it to Uncle Sam telling everyone to eat their vegetables -- under penalty of law.

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    President Obama signs the health-care law March 23, 2010, as Democratic members of Congress and others watch.
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A court judge need not be as dull as vegetables.

Take US District Judge Roger Vinson of Florida. During a hearing Thursday on whether the Obama health-care law should be able to force people to buy insurance, he wondered aloud if such laws might someday also order people to eat a vegetable everyday in order not to become a health burden on fellow citizen.

“If [the federal government] decided everybody needs to eat broccoli because broccoli makes us healthy, they could mandate that everybody has to eat broccoli each week?” he told lawyers defending the Affordable Care Act, which was passed last spring.

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He also challenged another basic premise of the law – that everyone without health insurance would inevitable use the medical system without paying the cost.

Judge Vinson cited his own case of shelling out money for the cost of his first son’s birth at a hospital.

“I think it worked out to be $100 a pound,” he said.

Such humor and everyday language is quite rare in legal decisions. Let’s hope his final ruling on the health-care law is as clear and commonsensical as his courtroom utterances.

That law, of course, is a serious matter. It aims to provide universal health care coverage. But nearly half the states are challenging it, notably the so-called “individual mandate” that would impose a fine against the non-poor, non-elderly and others who don’t purchase private health insurance, starting in 2014.

Judge Vinson questions whether Congress can regulate inactivity, or a person’s decision not to buy insurance. If that were the case, what couldn’t be regulated?

“It would be a giant leap for the Supreme Court to say a decision to buy or not to buy is tantamount to activity,” he said.

“In the broadest sense every decision we make is economic. The decision to marry. The decision to keep a job or not has an economic effect,” he added.

The issue of the mandate has now come before four federal judges. Two of them, appointed by Republican presidents, are against it (assuming this judge rules the way he clearly hinted). The two others, appointed by Democratic presidents, let it be. One or more of these cases will probably go before the Supreme Court soon.

If the mandate is ruled illegal, the health-care law would need a major revamping to find a new source of funds for universal coverage.

Judge Vinson promises to make his decision quickly. He might even strike down the whole law if he cites the mandate as unconstitutional and an affront to individual liberty.

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