Family Takes On Mass. Health Care Mandate

By Jared Bowen


Jan. 18, 2011

PEABODY, Mass. — House Republicans Tuesday kicked off debate over their proposed repeal of the national health care reform law, passed in early 2010 by President Obama.

It's a largely symbolic gesture, since the Democratically-controlled Senate would not support repeal — but it has reopened dialogue about how the law's provisions will affect the country.

One of the law's key elements the universal health insurance mandate — the requirement that Americans buy health care or face a fine. Supporters say it keeps citizens from going uninsured while helping insurance costs and premiums stay low, while opponents say it encroaches too far on individuals' rights.

Under the national law, the mandate won't go into effect until 2014. But it's already a part of Massachusetts law — and one family says it shouldn't be. Peabody glazier Michael Merlina is taking the state to court, saying the state's formula for mandating health care coverage is flawed.

At the end of 2008, Merlina’s wife lost her job, leaving him as the sole provider working as a glazier with his family’s glass company.

“We were just doing our best to get by," Merlina said. "Healthcare was just something, another expense we couldn’t afford.”

So he and his wife dropped their health coverage. Consequently, the state fined him more than $1,800. He's now fighting that fine in court.

Merlina argues the state's formula for mandating healthcare coverage is flawed. “All the state really does is they just plug your final income into a table and it spits out whether you can afford it or not," he said. "They don’t take into account where that income is going.”

At the family glass company, Merlina is one of seven employees and works alongside his father, grandparents and aunts. All of them receive healthcare through other means so it’s not offered through the business. To acquire his own coverage, Merlina would have to pay $425 a month on a salary of $52,000 a year.

Merlina said he can't afford to make payments on his mortgage and condo fees and pay for health insurance, too. "I’m not blaming that on anybody else. I bought (my condo). It’s my responsibility to pay for it,” Merlina said.

What he doesn’t think is his responsibility is paying a fine for healthcare he says he and his wife simply can’t afford after paying mortgage, food and utility bills.

“It’s not that I’m not going to pay it because if a judge orders me to pay it, I will pay it because that’s the law," Merlina said. "But I just wanted a better answer from someone. Because all the health care Connector gave me for a reason that I had to pay it was that I didn’t provide enough documents and I did provide everything.”

Merlina's case isn't unique. In the first three years of the state’s universal healthcare law, 7,700 Massachusetts residents appealed fines for not having coverage. 60 percent of those pleas were approved.

The state says it is willing to reconsider Merlina's case.

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