Plaintiff in health law challenge has medical debt, bankruptcy records show

A plaintiff in the healthcare reform lawsuit has $4,500 in unpaid medical bills, according to bankruptcy records.

Mary Brown is one of two individuals who joined 26 states and the small business lobby in challenging the health law's individual mandate to have insurance. The National Federation of Independent Business showcased Brown as someone who would be harmed by the mandate because it would require her to divert funds from her business to buy coverage she doesn't want.

The owner of a small auto repair shop in Florida, Brown filed for bankruptcy last year, possibly weakening her standing in the case because her monthly income of $275 in unemployment benefits would exempt her from the law's penalty for people who don't get insurance. 

The NFIB added another individual plaintiff to the suit after Brown's financial troubles surfaced, but a new Los Angeles Times report that shows she owes about $4,500 in medical debt with her husband could help the Obama administration make the case that the mandate is needed to avoid having the uninsured shift their medical costs onto people with insurance.

"The uninsured shift tens of billions of dollars of costs for the uncompensated care they receive to other market participants annually," says the administration's Supreme Court brief. "That cost-shifting drives up insurance premiums, which, in turn, makes insurance unaffordable to even more people."

Brown told the Times that the medical bills were her husband's, and didn't cause her auto shop's bankruptcy. 

"I always paid my bills, as well as my medical bills," she reportedly told the Times. "I never said medical insurance is not a necessity. It should be anyone's right to what kind of health insurance they have."

Regardless, the law's defenders have latched onto the Browns' medical debt to make their case.

"At the outset of this litigation, respondent Mary Brown thought she had made a rational choice to forgo insurance: she said she did 'not believe that the cost of health insurance coverage [was] a wise or acceptable use of [her] financial resources,' … apparently believing that she could pay her medical bills out of pocket," the Department of Justice brief says. "That belief proved incorrect. Ms. Brown and her husband recently filed a petition for bankruptcy, and they list among their liabilities thousands of dollars in unpaid medical bills, including bills from out-of-state providers. … Those liabilities are uncompensated care that will ultimately be paid for by other market participants."

The Supreme Court will hear a challenge to the law's individual mandate later this month.