Is it unconstitutional to mandate health insurance? It seems unprecedented to require citizens to purchase insurance simply because they live in the U.S. (rather than as a condition of driving a car or owning a business, for instance). Therefore, several credentialed, conservative lawyers think that compulsory health insurance is unconstitutional. See here and here and here. Their reasoning is unconvincing and deeply flawed. Since I’m writing in part for a non-legal audience, I’ll start with some basics and provide a lay explanation. (Go here for a fuller account).
Constitutional attacks fall into two basic categories: (1) lack of federal power (Congress simply lacks any power to do this under the main body of the Constitution); and (2) violation of individual rights protected by the “Bill of Rights.” Considering (1), Congress has ample power and precedent through the Constitution’s “Commerce Clause” to regulate just about any aspect of the national economy. Health insurance is quintessentially an economic good. The only possible objection is that mandating its purchase is not the same as “regulating” its purchase, but a mandate is just a stronger form of regulation. When Congressional power exists, nothing in law says that stronger actions are less supported than weaker ones.
An insurance mandate would be enforced through income tax laws, so even if a simple mandate were not a valid “regulation,” it still could fall easily within Congress’s plenary power to tax or not tax income. For instance, anyone purchasing insurance could be given an income tax credit, and those not purchasing could be assessed an income tax penalty. The only possible constitutional restriction is an archaic provision saying that if Congress imposes anything that amounts to a “head tax” or “poll tax” (that is, taxing people simply as people rather than taxing their income), then it must do so uniformly (that is, the same amount per person). This technical restriction is easily avoided by using income tax laws. Purists complain that taxes should be proportional to actual income and should not be used mainly to regulate economic behavior, but our tax code, for better or worse, is riddled with such regulatory provisions and so they are clearly constitutional.
Arguments about federal authority deal mainly with states’ rights and sovereign power, but the real basis for opposition is motivated more by sentiments about individual rights – the notion that government should not use its recognized authority to tell people how to spend their money. This notion of economic liberty had much greater traction in a prior era, but it has little basis in modern constitutional law. Eighty years ago, the Supreme Court used the concept of “substantive due process” to protect individual economic liberties, but the Court has thoroughly and repeatedly repudiated this body of law since the 1930s. Today, even Justice Scalia regards substantive due process as an “oxymoron.”
Under both liberal and conservative jurisprudence, the Constitution protects individual autonomy strongly only when “fundamental rights” are involved. There may be fundamental rights to decide about medical treatments, but having insurance does not require anyone to undergo treatment. It only requires them to have a means to pay for any treatment they might choose to receive. The liberty in question is purely economic and has none of the strong elements of personal or bodily integrity that invoke Constitutional protection. In short, there is no fundamental right to be uninsured, and so various arguments based on the Bill of Rights fall flat. The closest plausible argument is one based on a federal statute protecting religious liberty, but Congress is Constitutionally free to override one statute with another.
If Constitutional concerns still remain, the simplest fix (ironically) would be simply to enact social insurance (as we currently do for Medicare and social security retirement) but allow people to opt out if they purchase private insurance. Politically, of course, this is not in the cards, but the fact that social insurance faces none of the alleged Constitutional infirmities of mandating private insurance points to this basic realization: Congress is on solid Constitutional ground in expanding health insurance coverage in essentially any fashion that is politically and socially feasible.
Professor of Law and Public Health
Wake Forest University School of Law