While NFIB v. Sebelius largely upheld the Affordable Care Act (ACA), it did not do so as as to the proposed expansion of Medicaid. Seven of the nine US Supreme Court Justices (all except Justices Ginsburg and Sotomayor) endorsed a ‘coercion’ argument that gave individual States a right of objection grounded in the Constitution’s Spending Clause, wherein individual states could refuse to expand Medicaid as demanded by the federal government without being directly penalized by a denial of federal funding. Two Justices in dissent focused on the lack of judicial administrability of such a standard, and suggested it would open up a Pandora’s box of future constitutional challenges without any clear rules.
In this article, part of a symposium on philosophical analysis of the Court's decision published in the peer-reviewed journal Ethical Perspectives, I discuss what I see as a more fundamental question: by what theory is the Medicaid expansion coercive, and even if coercive, by what theory is it coercive in a problematic way that justifies constitutional redress?
The Court’s failure to address this issue stems, in part, from confusion over what it means for an offer to be coercive. In some sense, Justice Kagan seemed to recognize this issue in a question to Paul Clement, the lawyer for the challengers to the ACA, at oral argument: “Why is a big gift from the federal government a matter of coercion?” Kagan asked. “It’s just a boatload of federal money for you to take and spend on poor people’s health care,” Kagan added. “It doesn’t sound coercive to me, I have to tell you.” The exchange is all the more curious because, despite her scepticism, Kagan signed on to the Court’s holding that the Medicaid expansion was coercive.
I will examine this issue by first discussing whether Medicaid itself and the ACA’s expansion are coercive (as stand-alone offers). I will then examine whether the offer to change from the existing Medicaid program to the ACA’s Medicaid expansion was problematic. I will analyze these questions under the assumption that the Court is not committing a category error by treating States as the kinds of entities subject to this kind of coercion inquiry. In my conclusion, however, I briefly consider whether that assumption is warranted.