DAVID GREENE, HOST:
Here in Washington, the Supreme Court will take up President Obama's landmark health-care law next week. And one question they'll examine is whether the law can require most Americans to have health insurance starting in 2014. The so-called individual mandate is the centerpiece of the law, and conventional wisdom says if it's found to be unconstitutional, the rest of the law crumbles.
But as NPR's Julie Rovner reports, many experts say the law may well survive even without the mandate.
JULIE ROVNER, BYLINE: Perhaps it's ironic that one of the most articulate spokesmen for requiring everyone to have health insurance is someone who's currently campaigning for the repeal of the federal health law. That would be Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney. But while Romney wants the federal law overturned, he does still back the individual mandate in the law he signed as governor of Massachusetts. Here he is, defending it at a debate in Florida in January.
MITT ROMNEY: If someone doesn't have insurance, then we have to care for them in the hospitals, give them free care, so we said no more. No more free riders. We're insisting on personal responsibility. Either get the insurance or help pay for your care, and that was the conclusion that we reached.
ROVNER: But what if the Supreme Court decides that Congress lacks the constitutional authority to require such personal responsibility? The result, says John Rother of the nonpartisan National Coalition on Health Care, wouldn't necessarily be catastrophic.
JOHN ROTHER: The other provisions to the law could go forward without a mandate.
ROVNER: Including things like expanding the Medicaid program for the poor, and setting up new marketplaces where people can compare plans and buy health insurance. But Rother says without the mandate, the law wouldn't be nearly as effective.
ROTHER: We wouldn't see as many people covered by insurance. According to most estimates, we'd have about 18 million more uninsured as a result of invalidating the mandate than we would with the mandate. And also, health costs would be higher.
ROVNER: That's because unless healthy people can be somehow persuaded to buy insurance, only the sick will sign up. That raises costs because everyone paying in is also collecting benefits. But experts say there are ways to strongly encourage people to sign up that stops short of a mandate. One possibility, says Paul Starr of Princeton University...
PAUL STARR: Have limited enrollment periods, open enrollment periods, the way employers do. That is, there'd be a time once a year for open enrollment - instead of allowing people at any time both to sign up for coverage, and then to stop paying for coverage.
ROVNER: In fact, new rules for the new state marketplaces require exactly that. But Starr has also been pushing another, even more dramatic idea. It would let people opt out of the law for five years at a time if the court throws out the mandate. But they would have to opt out of the law's benefits as well.
STARR: And that means that you wouldn't be eligible for the subsidies or use of the insurance exchanges. You wouldn't be guaranteed a policy with no pre-existing condition.
ROVNER: Starr says rather than a mandate, it asks people to make a choice.
STARR: Are you in, or are you out? And I think it would allow people to opt out without any penalty but it would also nudge a great many people to take part. And I think it would deal with both the constitutional issues and a lot of the political opposition to the mandate.
ROVNER: It's not just liberals like Starr who think the law could survive without the individual requirement. Tom Miller, of the conservative American Enterprise Institute, is no fan of the health law. But he says he, too, could see ways to encourage - rather than require - people to get insured.
TOM MILLER: Some of those proposals have talked about basically limiting the protection against pre-existing conditions to people who maintain continuous coverage. We did that with the group market.
ROVNER: That was included in a law passed with bipartisan support back in 1996.
MILLER: It could be done with the individual market. And that doesn't have that same type of sticking it right in your face, in your nose to say, you must buy this; as opposed to no, it just would be better, and it'd be more worthwhile, for you.
ROVNER: Until now, neither side has been willing to budge when it comes to the health law. Republicans want it repealed. Democrats want it left unchanged. But Miller says if the Supreme Court finds any piece of the law unconstitutional, the sheer need to keep the health-care system functioning is likely to force some sort of compromise. Julie Rovner, NPR News, Washington.