From The Wall Street Journal, March 24, 2011
Forced Into Medicare
A federal judge tells seniors to take it or lose Social Security.
This week marks the first anniversary of ObamaCare, and if you are wondering where that coercive law is headed, we’d point to a case in federal court. That’s where Judge Rosemary Collyer has ruled that Americans have a legal obligation to accept subpar government health benefits.
It remains a remarkable fact that America obliges most citizens over the age of 65 to take that rickety government health plan known as Medicare. Judging by today’s growing number of health-savings options (HSAs, medical FSAs), some Americans would prefer to maintain private coverage upon retirement, rather than be compelled into second-rate Medicare. Yet the idea of patient choice offends many in government, and in 1993 the Clinton Administration promulgated so-called POMS rules that say seniors who withdraw from Medicare Part A (which covers hospital and outpatient services) must forfeit their Social Security benefits.
Several senior citizens in 2008 challenged the government, suing to be allowed to opt out of Medicare without losing Social Security. The plaintiffs paid their Medicare taxes through their working lives and are not asking for that money back. They simply want to use their private savings to contract for health services they believe to be superior to a government program that imposes price controls and rations care. They also dutifully contributed to Social Security and—fair enough—prefer to keep those benefits.
As recently as the fall of 2009, Judge Collyer provided support for the plaintiffs. She rejected the Obama Administration’s argument that the plaintiffs were lucky to get Medicare and therefore had suffered no “injury” and lacked standing. She noted the Clinton POMS are simply part of a government handbook and never went through a formal rule-making. She also refused the Administration’s request to dismiss the suit, noting that “neither the statute nor the regulation specifies that Plaintiffs must withdraw from Social Security and repay retirement benefits in order to withdraw from Medicare.”
Yet in a stunning reversal, Judge Collyer last week revisited her decision and dismissed the case. In direct contravention to her prior ruling, the judge said the Medicare statute does—with a little creative reading—contain a requirement that Social Security recipients take government health care. The Medicare statute provides that only individuals who are “entitled” to Social Security are “entitled” to Medicare. Therefore, argues the judge, “The only way to avoid entitlement to Medicare Part A at age 65 is to forego the source of that entitlement, i.e., Social Security Retirement benefits.”
This is convoluted enough, but Judge Collyer’s truly novel finding comes with her implicit argument that to be “entitled” to a government benefit is to be obligated to accept it. This is a startling break with existing legal understandings and raises profound questions as to whether Americans have a duty to accept other “entitlements,” say, food stamps or public housing. Or, as the plaintiffs attorney, Kent Masterson Brown, warns: “Anyone concerned with what will happen when the bureaucrats start writing the thousands of pages of rules that will govern” ObamaCare need only look at this ruling. “Nothing will be optional.”
That might explain why the Obama Administration fought this suit so vehemently. The government fisc—and taxpayers—would benefit if some seniors pay for their own health care. But for many liberals, the goal isn’t saving money or providing choices. The goal is to force all Americans into the same programs to fulfill their egalitarian dreams. The plaintiffs appealed this week to the D.C. Circuit Court of Appeals, and we hope for freedom’s sake they prevail.