People participate in a protest on the second day of oral arguments for the… (Mark Wilson/Getty Images )
Something close to two out of three bankruptcies in this country are not on account of Vegas gambling trips that got out of hand, or wild living in high style.
They're because of medical bills.
That means that Mary Brown, who owed about $4,500 in medical bills out of the $55,000 debt she and her husband held, could be the poster woman for the healthcare overhaul law now being argued before the Supreme Court.
Except that she was already the poster woman for the other side, the opponents of the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act.
Brown and her husband were running an auto repair shop in Florida when she volunteered to be a plaintiff against the law being challenged by the National Federation of Independent Business. Brown didn't have insurance, the group's lawyer declared, and moreover, she didn't want to pay for it and she didn't want the government to tell her she must have it.
Since then, Brown's auto repair business failed and the couple has filed for bankruptcy, making Brown rather more like the very people the law says it looks out for -- the ones who would be forced into bankruptcy because of medical bills.
My colleague David Savage, who's covered the Supreme Court for longer than some justices have sat on it, wrote that Brown said angrily on the phone recently that the medical bills were her husband's, not hers.
And in spite of what the business group's lawyer had said about Brown not having insurance or wanting to pay for it, Brown now says that she "never said medical insurance is not a necessity. It should be anyone's right to what kind of health insurance they have" -- which was one of the healthcare act's selling points, literally: that the insurance market, in all its variety, was open to all comers under its provisions.
The couple owed $2,140 to Bay Medical Center in Panama City, $610 to Bay Medical Physicians, $835 to an eye doctor in Alabama and $900 to a specialist in Mississippi.
This week, some high court justices were asking lawyers about the Boy Scout motto principle underlying the Affordable Care Act -- be prepared -- and about the medical tab that people who don't have insurance foist off on people who do.
Christa Hild, a spokeswoman for the medical center that the Browns' bankruptcy filing showed as a creditor, said that every year, the hospital has to eat $30 million in charity and uncompensated care costs. "We have to absorb it."
So the premise of the law -- you must be responsible for yourself and your own healthcare costs -- seems to be at variance with the conservative mantra: don't make the rest of us pay for you.
In the 1990s, as the Clinton administration was pushing for single-payer healthcare, Republicans in Congress were arguing for individual mandates.
No one sets out to get sick. No one sets out to fail to pay bills. But it happens. It happened to Mary Brown.
Healthcare costs gobble up a sixth of the national economy -- some of it spent on behalf of people with no insurance. We can't go on thinking like 15-year-olds -- that we're invulnerable and don't need insurance -- and yet living, and dying, like 80-year-olds, wanting the best medical care there is when we do get sick, even if we don't have the money or the insurance to pay for it.
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