Rob McKenna Defends State Law Forcing Consumers to Buy Insurance, Even as He Challenges the Similar New U.S. Law

"If you see Rob, say I said hello."
Attorney General Rob McKenna says he's personally, and solely, handling the state's lawsuit against the federal government, challenging the constitutionality of new U.S. health-care legislation. And he's going to continue to argue that it's wrong for the U.S. to force citizens to buy from private insurers even as he defends his state's law forcing citizens to buy from private insurers.

Those would be the consumers who must have auto insurance to drive a car in Washington, and that's different, McKenna maintains, even if it sounds like hair-splitting. Says his spokesperson Dan Sytman, "You can elect not to drive, and therefore not have to buy insurance. But you can't elect not to buy health insurance. You are required to follow that mandate just by virtue of being alive. There is some choice involved with a car, but no choice involved in health insurance, you have to buy it."

Still, the state's ultimate goal is the same - to help protect citizens medically and financially, and McKenna upholds that particular mandatory-coverage law daily. Sytman tells SW that McKenna feels there's a more important underlying question: whether the federal government has the legal right to force citizens to engage in such commercial commerce.

This seems to get to the heart of McKenna's academic argument, states rights. Except state governments, particularly those controlled by Republicans, do not practice what McKenna is preaching - not only by forcing citizens to buy car insurance, but saying they must buy health insurance as well.

Massachusetts, for one, under then-Gov. Mitt Romney, a Republican, passed a mandatory health-insurance law four years ago. For that matter, the Clinton administration's failed health plan, Hillary Care, had a mandatory-coverage rule that was added to the legislation by federal Republicans, no less.

What is this terrible thing McKenna opposes that is taking up much of his time and an unknown amount of taxpayer money? Starting in 2014, U.S. consumers who can afford insurance but don't buy it could be fined $95. There are questions about how violations could be discovered and how the law would actually be enforced. The poor who can't afford insurance won't be fined, and can get subsidies to help. The intent of the law is create a larger pool of insured, offsetting costs so millions more Americans can be covered.

McKenna is not opposed to expanded health coverage, Sytman says, but he strongly believes the law is unconstitutional, so much so he will personally make the case. "The AG will be handling this himself, for the most part," says Sytman. "He may from time to time consult with intellectual resources in our offices," conferring with assistant AGs. But it will be mostly McKenna alone arguing the cause, as he has been doing day after day lately on his web site and on the air.

What is this costing? McKenna's office has "not be able to isolate" the price tag for the federal challenge, Sytman says, but thinks it will be "nothing significant." The AG is getting an earful from taxpayers, though. In a word, they're "passionate," says Sytman.

"Were hearing from people who are very appreciative and very upset, people on both sides of the issue. Most are pretty courteous, with a few exceptions - a few screamers here and there. They've got lots of questions and we're doing our best to answer. But nobody's throwing rocks."

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