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Thursday, February 10, 2011

Health Care: Constitutional Rights and Legislative Powers

Kathleen S. Swendiman
Legislative Attorney

The health care reform debate raises many complex issues including those of coverage, accessibility, cost, accountability, and quality of health care. Underlying these policy considerations are issues regarding the status of health care as a constitutional or legal right. This report analyzes constitutional and legal issues pertaining to a right to health care, as well as the power of Congress to enact and fund health care programs. Following the recent passage of the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act, P.L. 111-148, legal issues have been raised regarding the power of Congress to mandate that individuals purchase health insurance, and the ability of states to “nullify” or “opt out” of such a requirement. These issues are also discussed.

The U.S. Constitution does not set forth an explicit right to health care. While the Supreme Court would likely find that the Constitution provides a right to obtain health care services at one’s own expense from willing providers, the Supreme Court has never interpreted the Constitution as guaranteeing a right to health care services from the government for those who cannot afford it. The Supreme Court has, however, held that the government has an obligation to provide medical care in certain limited circumstances, such as for prisoners.

While the U.S. Constitution and Supreme Court interpretations do not identify a constitutional right to health care for those who cannot afford it, Congress has enacted numerous statutes, such as Medicare, Medicaid, and the Children’s Health Insurance Program, that establish and define specific statutory rights of individuals to receive health care services from the government. As a major component of many health care entitlement statutes, Congress has provided funding to pay for the health services provided under law. Most of these statutes have been enacted pursuant to Congress’s authority to “make all Laws which shall be necessary and proper” to carry out its mandate “to … provide for the … general Welfare.” The power to spend for the general welfare is one of the broadest grants of authority to Congress in the U.S. Constitution. The Supreme Court accords considerable deference to a legislative decision by Congress that a particular health care spending program provides for the general welfare.

Recently, Congress enacted comprehensive health care reform legislation, P.L. 111-148, which includes a requirement, effective in 2014, that individuals purchase health insurance, and which significantly expands the Medicaid program. A number of lawsuits have been filed challenging various provisions of this legislation, including the power of Congress to enact an individual mandate to purchase health insurance under the Commerce Clause or other provisions of the U.S. Constitution. These lawsuits are in various stages of litigation, and it is expected that one or more of these cases will eventually reach the Supreme Court. In addition, several states have passed laws, or amended their state constitutions, to attempt to “nullify” or “opt out” of the federal individual health insurance mandate. Direct conflicts between federal and state laws, and state constitutional amendments, would raise constitutional issues which are likely to be resolved in favor of federal law under the Supremacy Clause of the U.S. Constitution.

A number of state constitutions contain provisions relating to health and the provision of health care services. State constitutions may provide constitutional rights that are more expansive than those found under the federal Constitution since federal rights set the minimum standards for the states.



Date of Report: February 1, 2011
Number of Pages: 18
Order Number: R40846
Price: $29.95

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