Plaintiffs Sue For Right To Remain Uninsured

In addition to moves by congressional Republicans to repeal the health care law, there are challenges coming up through the courts. The lawsuit that many observers think has the strongest chance of success is one brought by several states, the National Federation of Independent Business, and two individuals — Kaj Ahlburg and Mary Brown — who are fighting for the right to remain uninsured. For now, Ahlburg and Brown have been reluctant to be interviewed. Host Robert Siegel speaks with journalist Harris Meyer about the plaintiffs and their lawsuit.

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ROBERT SIEGEL, host:

In addition to moves by congressional Republicans to repeal the big health care law, there are challenges to it coming up through the courts. And the lawsuit that many observers think has the strongest chance of success is one brought by 26 states, the National Federation of Independent Business, and two individuals.

The names and stories of those two individuals may soon become common knowledge if their lawsuit goes to the Supreme Court, and either upends or confirms the mandate to buy health insurance. But for now, the two: Kaj Ahlburg of Port Angeles, Washington, and Mary Brown of Panama City, Florida, are reluctant to be interviewed. We've tried unsuccessfully to have them speak on the program.

And journalist Harris Meyer, who's based in Yakima, Washington, has also tried and he joins us now.

Any luck?

Mr. HARRIS MEYER (Journalist): Robert, I called both of them last June when I was doing a story on this. And I've tried several times, as recently as yesterday, to reach them. Kaj Ahlburg, who's very valuable and outspoken on every other issue, has failed to return my messages. Mary Brown, I spoke to briefly, including yesterday. She spent nearly 10 minutes telling me that she's too busy to talk to me.

SIEGEL: Well, these are two citizens who say that they cannot be or should not be forced to buy health insurance by the year 2014. I'd like you to tell us a bit about them. First, about Ms. Brown.

Mr. MEYER: Mary Brown owns a small auto repair shop in a low-income section of Panama City in the Florida Panhandle. She apparently has no health insurance. She told me she does not provide it for her employees. Her children are grown - she did not say whether she provided it for them, but she says that she needs the - in the lawsuit - needs the resources to run her business and doesn't want to put it into health insurance.

SIEGEL: And Kaj Ahlburg?

Mr. MEYER: Kaj Ahlburg is a apparently wealthy, retired Harvard-educated lawyer and a Wall Street investment banker who moved out to Port Angeles several years ago. He says that he doesn't want to have health insurance. He can pay for health care out-of-pocket.

SIEGEL: And what would the big health care law, how would it affect these two people? I'd like to get a sense of what it would do to them and what their complaint is, actually.

Mr. MEYER: Well, Mary Brown is a small business owner. And under the law, she would qualify for significant subsidies to buy insurance for herself and her employees. She would not fall under the employer mandate to provide it. It would be up to her. But she and her employees all would be obligated to personally acquire health insurance one way or another.

I should say that both of these individuals are around 50 years old.

Kaj Ahlburg is an individual. He's not running any business and he would be obligated to buy health insurance, which he refuses to do or he doesn't want to do because he says he's able to pay for it out-of-pocket and he doesn't want to be required.

SIEGEL: Let's say that the law were to take effect, that this lawsuit were not to prevail, and these individuals refused to buy health insurance. What would happen to them under the health care law?

Mr. MEYER: They would face a tax penalty, starting in 2015, of about $700, which would be enforced by the Internal Revenue Service for failure to buy health insurance.

SIEGEL: This particular suit is different from other challenges in that there are these two citizens - the suit originated in Florida - but they are suing as individuals. And in the district court hearing, where it was agreed that they have standing to sue, I gather they had a rather sympathetic judge on the bench.

Mr. MEYER: Yes. Judge Roger Vinson, appointed by President Reagan in the '80s, made comments that indicated he was quite sympathetic to the state's case. He said that he did not have health insurance when his son was born, and he paid out-of-pocket. And he doesn't see why people should be required to do so.

And he equated this requirement to the government requiring people to join a gym or eat broccoli. And most people are expecting that he will rule in favor of the states and strike down the constitutionality of the individual mandate provision.

SIEGEL: Well, Harris Meyer, thank you very much for talking with us.

Mr. MEYER: Yeah. Let's do it again, Robert.

SIEGEL: Okay. Mr. Meyer is a journalist and blogger based in Yakima, Washington. He was talking about the challenge springing from the State of Florida against the health care law and the two individuals who are plaintiffs in that action.

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SIEGEL: You're listening to ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News.

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