Is a government-dominated health-care system unconstitutional? A strong case can be made for that proposition, based on the same “right to privacy” that underlies such landmark Supreme Court decisions as Roe v. Wade.
The details of this year’s health-care reform bill are still being hammered out. But the end result is sure to be byzantine in complexity. Washington will have immense say over how, when and through whom Americans are treated. Moreover, despite the administration’s public pronouncements about painless cuts in wasteful spending, only the most credulous believe that some form of government-directed health-care rationing can be avoided as a means of controlling costs.
The Supreme Court created the right to privacy in the 1960s and used it to strike down a series of state and federal regulations of personal (mostly sexual) conduct. This line of cases began with Griswold v. Connecticut in 1965 (involving marital birth control), and includes the 1973 Roe v. Wade decision legalizing abortion.
The court’s underlying rationale was not abortion-specific. Rather, the justices posited a constitutionally mandated zone of personal privacy that must remain free of government regulation, except in the most exceptional circumstances. As the court explained in Planned Parenthood v. Casey (1992), “these matters, involving the most intimate and personal choices a person may make in a lifetime, choices central to personal dignity and autonomy, are central to the liberty protected by the Fourteenth Amendment. At the heart of liberty is the right to define one’s own concept of existence, of meaning, of the universe, and the mystery of human life.”
It is, of course, difficult to imagine choices more “central to personal dignity and autonomy” than measures to be taken for the prevention and treatment of disease — measures that may be essential to preserve or extend life itself. Indeed, when the overwhelming moral issues that surround the abortion question are stripped away, what is left is a medical procedure determined to be “necessary” by an expectant mother and her physician.
If the government cannot proscribe — or even “unduly burden,” to use another of the Supreme Court’s analytical frameworks — access to abortion, how can it proscribe access to other medical procedures, including transplants, corrective or restorative surgeries, chemotherapy treatments, or a myriad of other health services that individuals may need or desire?
This type of “burden” analysis will be especially problematic for a national health system because, in the health area, proper care often depends upon an individual’s unique physical and even genetic history and characteristics. One size clearly does not fit all, but that is the very essence of governmental regulation — to impose a regularity (if not uniformity) in the application of governmental power and the dispersal of its largess. Taking key decisions away from patient and physician, or otherwise limiting their available choices, will render any new system constitutionally vulnerable.
It is true, of course, that forms of rationing already exist in our current system. No one who has experienced the marked reluctance to treat aggressively lethal illnesses in the elderly can doubt that. However, what may be permissible for private actors — including doctors and insurance companies — is not necessarily lawful when done by the government.
Obviously, the government does not have to pay for any and all services individual citizens may desire. And simply refusing to approve a procedure or treatment under applicable reimbursement rules, as under the government-run Medicare and Medicaid, does not make the system unconstitutional. But if over time, as many critics fear, a “public option” health insurance plan turns into what amounts to a single-payer system, the constitutional issues regarding treatment and reimbursement decisions will be manifold.
The same will be true of a quasi-private system where the government claims a large role in defining acceptable health-insurance coverage and treatments. There will be all sorts of “undue burdens” on the rights of patients to receive the care they may want. Then the litigation will begin.
Anyone who imagines that Congress can simply avoid the constitutional issues — and lawsuits — by withdrawing federal court jurisdiction over the new health system must think again. A brief review of the Supreme Court’s recent war-on-terror decisions, brought by or on behalf of detained enemy combatants, will disabuse that notion. This area of governmental authority was once nearly immune from judicial intervention. Over the past five years, however, the Supreme Court (supposedly the nonpolitical branch) has unapologetically transformed itself into a full-fledged, policy-making partner with the president and Congress.
In the process, the justices blew past specific congressional efforts to limit their jurisdiction and involvement like a hot rod in the desert. Questions of basic constitutionality (however the court may define them) cannot now be shielded from judicial review.
It is, of course, impossible to predict how and when the courts will ultimately rule on the new health system. Much depends on the details and the extent to which reasonable and practical private alternatives to the national plan remain. In crafting the law, however, its White House and congressional sponsors must keep privacy — that near absolute right to personal autonomy they have so often praised and promoted — squarely before them. The only thing that is certain today is that the courts, and not Congress, will have the last word.