WASHINGTON – With the national health care revision law yet to fully take effect, but under challenge before the Supreme Court, six labor organizations have stepped forward, four of them joining other groups, to defend different parts of it.

The labor groups’ friend-of-the-court briefs, filed with the U.S. Supreme Court, are an index of where the unions and their allies stand. The court, however, is free to accept or ignore such legal submissions.

The key contenders in the case, which the justices will hear March 26-28, are the federal government, 26 states, and the National Federation of Independent Business, a right-wing lobby. The GOP government of Florida is leading states’ campaign against the health care law; NFIB also hates the law.

The federal government is defending the health care revision, while the states call it unconstitutional; so does NFIB. The union groups, in their briefs, take the government’s side.

The Service Employees and Change To Win filed their own brief defending the health care law, without allies. They were the only unions to do so. SEIU said more than half of its 2.1 million members work in health care, and SEIU is the largest union in Change To Win. The two defended the law’s minimum coverage provision.

“The minimum coverage provision operates as an income tax within Congress’ complete and all-embracing income taxing power,” SEIU and Change To Win’s lawyers wrote. “The provision gives taxpayers the choice to either purchase adequate health insurance or pay additional money to the government with their tax returns.”

The two said only taxpayers who owe income taxes would pay the health care tax, if they didn’t buy health insurance, starting in 2016. The formal language says the tax would be “up to 2.5 percent of household income, above the income tax filing threshold” but they quoted a GOP foe of the health care law as estimating the usual penalty would be $750 yearly.

The $4 billion the government will collect from the tax will go to pay for coverage for people whose incomes are too low to pay taxes, while giving other taxpayers an incentive to buy health insurance, “reducing future costs to the government,” the brief by SEIU and Change To Win adds.

The union’s attorneys said health care law foes want to overturn it because the law calls the tax “a penalty,” and because it says taxpayers “shall” buy insurance or pay the penalty.

The American Nurses Association, with other medical groups, tackled the health care law foes’ argument that if Congress could force people to buy health insurance, it could force them to do anything. Not so, the union and its allies said. The only laws that flunk such a test, it said, are those “focused on non-economic concerns or solely intrastate matters.” And ANA and its allies dismissed the case against the health care tax by calling it “part of a broader scheme of regulating the national health care and health insurance markets,” which Congress has the power to do.

They also detailed the practical impact of getting everyone into the health care system. “Uninsured Americans frequently delay care until their conditions become much more difficult and expensive to treat,” the groups explained. “And the cost of caring for the uninsured drives up the cost of Medicare and of health insurance plans.”

Not only that, but “the activity of delaying the purchase of health insurance until an individual requires care” affects interstate commerce, the union says. That means Congress can regulate it, ANA added.

The Coalition of Labor Union Women and 9to5 joined a large array of womens organizations in defending the law’s improvement of women’s access to health care and ending health insurers’ discrimination against women.

The law “ends gender ratings, makes maternity coverage available to all, prohibits sex discrimination in health care and health insurance, and expands Medicaid eligibility,” among other things says their brief, authored by the National Women’s Law Center. That includes insurers’ discrimination against pregnant women, they said.

The law also “supports nursing mothers, provides Pap tests, mammograms, and family planning without co-pays and makes health insurance more affordable,” they add.

“As legislation intended to end gender discrimination,” the health care law “follows in a long tradition of civil rights acts firmly within Congress’ power” to regulate commerce, CLUW, 9to5 and the Womens Law Center brief said.

“The law has, and was intended to have, a particularly important effect on women” and their health, the groups explained. It also would not only affect commerce, “but help right a moral and social wrong” – health care discrimination against women – “that in itself has profound economic consequences” which Congress can regulate.

The New England Jewish Labor Committee and other New England Jewish groups also defended the health care tax. They said it’s not coercive and does not intrude on liberty. The Jewish community, they added, would “oppose any sacrifice of genuinely fundamental individual rights in an effort to address the health care crisis.”

But there is no such sacrifice here, they said. “The minimum coverage provision does not require individuals to purchase any particular product. It is, instead, merely a requirement for individual financial participation in the national healthcare infrastructure, much like a tax,” they said. The groups called it “a kind of regulatory control that does not, under precedent, raise rights-based concerns.”



Mark Gruenberg
Mark Gruenberg

Award-winning journalist Mark Gruenberg is head of the Washington, D.C., bureau of People's World. He is also the editor of the union news service Press Associates Inc. (PAI). Known for his reporting skills, sharp wit, and voluminous knowledge of history, Mark is a compassionate interviewer but tough when going after big corporations and their billionaire owners.