Of Health Care, Haircuts and Broccoli

It was just a routine haircut.

But before it was over, I found myself engaged in a donnybrook with a beauty salon of women from both the left and right in their political thinking, all preaching to each other about the evils of the federal health care reform law, known as the Affordable Care Act.

The subject came up because I had mentioned that I would be covering the decision of the U.S. Supreme Court this week, which will determine whether the ACA is unconstitutional.

Although no one in the room was an attorney and certainly none of them had ever argued a case before the high court, there was unanimous agreement that the bill was an infringement of their rights because it will require most Americans to buy health insurance.

I was struck by this. The women in this group, I will say again, came from both ends of the political spectrum. So for them all to agree that the so-called individual mandate was a violation of their personal freedom seemed worth taking note of in today’s polarized political environment.

I can’t remember the last time I watched a whole room full of liberal and conservative Americans agree on anything. And here they were going on and on about how the government shouldn’t be allowed to force them to buy ANYTHING … least of all health insurance.

Of course, many feel differently. There are conservatives who think that state governments have the right to pass laws like this — even if they think the federal government overstepped its bounds here. And there are many liberals who think the Affordable Care Act would greatly benefit the very Americans who are complaining about the law in hair salons and barber shops.

But this all gave me some insight into why polling on this issue, which started a few years ago, has consistently shown the same thing: that more than 50 percent of people do not like the individual mandate. Like the women in that beauty parlor, most Americans aren’t keen on their government interfering in their health care decisions — at least when it comes to forcing them to buy insurance.

Back in March, when the high court heard arguments in the case, even the justices themselves got into a protracted discussion with lawyers arguing the case before them — the now-famous broccoli discussion. That started when Justice Antonin Scalia asked one of the lawyers a simple question: If the government can require people to buy health insurance, couldn’t it also make Americans buy broccoli?

Tomorrow’s Supreme Court decision is about a whole lot more than vegetables. It may bring some clarity to the issue of how far the government can go in what it requires its citizens to do. And it will affect almost everyone because health care is something that … at some point in our lives … we all need.

It won’t be clear until the justices hand down their decision tomorrow how much of the ACA will survive. The court also has to decide whether the law’s expansion of the Medicaid program to 16 million more Americans will stand.

But however this turns out, there will still be a lot of hurdles for the country to overcome before the health care system is truly reformed. And if the mandate is knocked down, there will be big questions about how to cover millions of uninsured Americans … and keep them out of the emergency room, where health care is most expensive.

Check out the story posted on our health page today on the situation in Texas, where one in three people are uninsured. That’s more than any other state. The city of Houston alone has 33 percent of its people without health insurance … one of the highest rates in the country.

And it’s estimated that every year, more than 200,000 people die because they have no health insurance. So come tomorrow — whether you like buying broccoli or not — there’s still much to be done.