Commentary: U.S. health insurance situation is insane

Carl Hiaasen is a columnist for the Miami Herald.
Carl Hiaasen is a columnist for the Miami Herald. MCT

Legal opposition to the new federal health-care plan is focused on the part requiring almost all Americans to carry health insurance, which has widely been denounced as intrusive and unconstitutional.

Government, the opponents cry, cannot compel citizens to pay for products such as insurance policies.

If that argument prevails in court, I look forward to the day when I can tear up my auto insurance policy, which the state of Florida makes me purchase every year if I want to drive a car. Likewise, I can put a torch to the flood insurance that I’m required to own because my house sits in a zone that nosy Uncle Sam says is at risk of being swamped in a storm.

Now, I admit that my auto policy would protect me financially if I get T-boned by some halfwit who doesn’t carry any coverage. And obviously that flood policy – although I’ve never filed a claim – would enable my family to rebuild after a Katrina-type disaster.

But, heck, isn’t principle more important than practicality?

Last week in Atlanta, three federal appeals judges heard arguments for and against President Obama’s health-care reform package, which was passed last year by Congress. The lawsuit challenging the plan was filed by 26 states, including Florida, and a group of small businesses and conservative activists.

The case reached the appellate bench following a ruling by U.S. District Judge Roger Vinson in Pensacola, who struck down the entire health-care package because of the so-called “individual mandate” that would require people to get insurance.

Vinson, who stayed his decision to allow for appeals, said that Congress doesn’t have the authority to penalize citizens for the “inactivity” of refusing to purchase a commercial product.

In this case, those who don’t buy health coverage would pay an income-tax penalty.

Here in Florida, as in many other states, drivers caught without auto insurance must pay a ticket and can even lose their license. So far, no high court has ruled these penalties to be unconstitutional.

In fact, most of the insurance we end up purchasing is not by happy choice. If you don’t maintain policies for flood, windstorm damage or homeowner’s protection, banks and mortgage firms are legally entitled to impose that coverage at their own chosen (and ludicrous) price.

And they can do it even if your mortgage payments are up to date.

Interestingly, these laws remain unchallenged by state governors and other politicians who pass themselves off as constitutional purists. Surely their convenient blind spots have nothing to do with the political reach of the banking and insurance industries.

Individual home and auto policies are already brutally overpriced, but they would be astronomical if the costs weren’t mandatorily spread among all consumers.

It’s true that thousands of Floridians still drive around with no car insurance, but millions would take the same road if it became legal. Meanwhile, drivers who responsibly purchased liability policies would see their premiums shoot through the roof, as they got stuck with subsidizing everyone else.

That’s exactly what’s been happening with health care in this country for too long. According to government estimates, paying the medical bills for uninsured Americans costs taxpayers about $43 billion each year.

It’s utterly insane, especially in a deficit crisis.

Lawyers for the Obama administration argue that expanding health-care coverage to all Americans is a matter of national urgency for the economy, and that Congress therefore has the right to require citizens to purchase basic medical insurance.

By the tone of their questions, the three appellate judges in Atlanta appear wary of the administration’s position. Chief Judge Joel Dubina asked, not unreasonably, “If we uphold the individual [health insurance] mandate, are there any limits on Congressional power?”

If it is eventually ruled that Congress isn’t empowered to make us buy health insurance, the next logical question is how we can be required by any governing entity — local, state or federal — to insure ourselves against car accidents, house fires, floods, tornados or hurricanes.

Such policies are all “commercial products” under Judge Vinson’s definition, yet people have no practical choice but to pay the premiums.

Whether or not that’s strictly constitutional is an intriguing legal question. The economic reality is that no bank will write a mortgage for an uninsured house, or finance an uninsured automobile, so those laws are likely to remain intact no matter what happens in Atlanta.

If Obama’s healthcare plan is struck down in court, lots of politicians will celebrate it as a victory over big government. The dubious reward for taxpayers will be to continue footing the medical bills for 50 million uninsured Americans, and watching the dangerous deficit swell.

Related stories from McClatchy DC