One of Health Care Reform's Biggest Foes May Soon Be a Customer
The health care reform program, often referred to as Obamacare by its opponents, comprises both the Health Care and Education Reconciliation Act and the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act. Among other things, those laws will extend health insurance to 30 million uninsured citizens, making it the largest single expansion of the social safety net since Medicare was created in 1965. It is also one of the most controversial: Currently, 26 states and the National Federation of Independent Business have a case challenging the program heading to the Supreme Court. Two private citizens -- Brown and Washington state resident Kaj Ahlburg -- are also key participants in the suit.
Ahlburg, a retired investment banker, claims that he can pay for his health care out of pocket, and doesn't need insurance. According to him, the new law's individual mandate, which requires him to buy health insurance starting in 2014, or risk being hit with a $695 fine, is unconstitutional.
Brown's argument is different. The former owner of Brown & Dockery, a Panama City-based automotive repair shop, she would have been required by the health care reform law to provide insurance for her three employees -- again, starting in 2014. Brown claimed that this would harm her business, as she would have to use her company's operating funds to fulfill the insurance requirement.
Implicit in Brown's argument was the idea that raising her company's overhead would hurt its viability, ultimately putting her out of business. In August, however, that argument was rendered moot as Brown and her husband had to close down the shop and file for personal bankruptcy. In their paperwork the pair claimed almost $63,000 in debts, most of which were tied to her business.
Brown's bankruptcy could make it impossible for her to have her case argued before the Supreme Court. The court generally requires "standing": Plaintiffs contesting a law must be able to demonstrate that they are materially harmed by the law in question. Now that she's no longer going to held responsible for buying her employees' health insurance, Brown would seem to have lost standing -- and her standing was fundamental to the case having come this far.
On one level, Brown's money woes prove her point, demonstrating the paper-thin profit margins of many companies -- and their incredible susceptibility to recession and other economic problems. Brown & Dockery faced falling revenues due to the recession, as well as the BP oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico, which devastated the economy in her area.
On another level, Brown's situation also shows why Obama's health care coverage expansion was so necessary. Financially strapped and unemployed since August, Brown now relies on government-funded unemployment payments to keep her head above water. If the the new insurance rules were already in full effect, she could scratch health care off her list of worries.
Bruce Watson is a senior features writer for DailyFinance. You can reach him by e-mail at email@example.com, or follow him on Twitter at @bruce1971.