A Health Care Mistake?


The health care reform law may yet become a historic achievement for President Obama and the Democrats. But that appears less likely all the time.

Democrats had been trying to pass universal health insurance (or something close to it) since at least Harry Truman’s administration. In 2009, with Obama in the White House and a 60-vote Senate majority, Democrats had a chance to provide health care coverage for tens of millions of uninsured Americans, including some six million uninsured Texans. It was the kind of opportunity that comes around once every few decades. And they may well have blown it.

Two federal judges, both Republican appointees, recently declared parts of the law unconstitutional. On Jan. 31, Judge Roger Vinson sided with 26 states, including Texas, that challenged the law’s constitutionality. The key point of contention is the law’s so-called “individual mandate,” the provision that requires every American to have health insurance or face penalties. Conservative legal scholars contend that Congress overstepped its authority by passing the individual mandate because it punishes Americans for simply doing nothing. Vinson agreed with that interpretation and, as a consequence, struck down the entire law. Two other federal judges—appointed by Democrats—have upheld the statute. Ultimately, the law’s fate will likely be decided by the U.S. Supreme Court.

We’re not constitutional scholars. We don’t presume to know whether the health-care law will survive its legal challenges. But we do find the individual mandate troubling. It represents the first time the federal government has ever required all its citizens to purchase a product from a private company.

There were better, more progressive ways to reform the health care system. We hoped the bill would include a public option or government-run plan that would offer an alternative to insurance companies. The GOP would have thrown a fit, of course, but there would have been no question about its constitutionality. Instead, Democratic leaders foolishly sacrificed the public option in an effort to make the bill more moderate and to appeal to Republicans. And what did it get them? A legal fight that may scuttle the entire legislation. 

If the federal courts overturn the reform law, Democrats will be to blame. They should have followed their progressive ideals. By not doing so, they may have wasted a once-in-a-generation opportunity.