Health care reform goes before federal judge in Richmond

By Andy Jenks - bio | email
Posted by Terry Alexander - email

RICHMOND, VA (WWBT) - America's health care overhaul is under a judge's microscope right here in Richmond. At issue: Whether the government can require you to buy health insurance.

For two and a half hours, attorneys squared-off on the constitutionality of national health care reform, the latest step in a legal battle that's expected to go all the way to the top.

When President Barack Obama put health care reform into law this year, it was written so uninsured Americans wouldn't have to buy their own coverage until 2014. Four years, for the legal system to sort it out, beginning with Virginia's attorney general.

"Virginia is attempting to put the federal government back inside the constitutional fence," said Ken Cuccinelli, following the morning hearing at the U.S. Courthouse downtown.

Each side spoke with surgical precision. Arguing for the commonwealth, solicitor general E. Duncan Getchell said that the government can't make you buy anything, adding it's "...the one thing they [the government] weren't allowed to choose" in putting healthcare reform together.

However, Ian Gershengorn, arguing for the United States, said people all need doctors someday, and since, "You cannot opt out of the health care market," the government is allowed to step in.

Advocates for health care reform urged Virginia to drop the case.

"It would be great if all Virginia officials would work on implementing the law instead of spending time and  precious state dollars fighting it," said  Jill Hanken of the Virginia Poverty Law Center.

But that course of action appeared highly unlikely.

Said Cuccinelli, "If Virginia loses this fight, and the federal government is allowed to cross this line, Congress will be  granted virtually an unlimited power to order you to buy anything."

In a case that the judge said "has more moving parts than a Swiss watch" the Hon. Henry Hudson called the arguments some of the best he's heard in all his years. Still, he half-jokingly wondered, if the government can make you buy insurance, can it make you "buy a car, join a gym, or eat asparagus?"

The U.S. responded by saying that health care is unique, in that people don't know when they will require thousands of dollars in care that they might not be able to afford. Non-payment for medical services cost Americans $43-billion a year, Gershengorn said.

Judge Hudson said he would rule on the constitutionality of health care reform by the end of the year, but no matter who wins this round, the case is expected to go to the U.S. Supreme Court.

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