Mary Brown, a 56-year-old Florida woman who owned a small auto repair shop but had no health insurance, became the lead plaintiff challenging President Obama's healthcare law because she was passionate about the issue.
Brown "doesn't have insurance. She doesn't want to pay for it. And she doesn't want the government to tell her she has to have it," said Karen Harned, a lawyer for the National Federation of Independent Business. Brown is a plaintiff in the federation's case, which the Supreme Court plans to hear later this month.
But court records reveal that Brown and her husband filed for bankruptcy last fall with $4,500 in unpaid medical bills. Those bills could change Brown from a symbol of proud independence into an example of exactly the problem the healthcare law was intended to address.
The central issue before the Supreme Court is whether the government can require people to buy health insurance. Under the law, those who fail to buy insurance after 2014 could face a fine of up to $700.
The business federation, along with other critics of the law, calls the insurance mandate a "threat to individual liberty" that violates the Constitution.
Obama administration lawyers argue that the requirement is justified because everyone, sooner or later, needs healthcare. Those who fail to have insurance are at high risk of running up bills they cannot pay, sticking the rest of society with the cost, they argue. Brown's situation, they say, is a perfect example of exactly that kind of "uncompensated care that will ultimately be paid by others."
"This is so ironic," Jane Perkins, a health law expert in North Carolina, said of Brown's situation. "It just shows that all Americans inevitably have a need for healthcare. Somebody has paid for her healthcare costs. And she is now among the 62% whose personal bankruptcy was attributable in part to medical bills."
Lawyers who represent Brown dispute the significance of her bankruptcy. They say her unpaid medical bills were only a small part of her debts and did not cause her bankruptcy. They say that she and her husband owe $55,000 to others, including credit card companies. And they say her financial troubles were caused by the failure of her auto repair shop.
Brown, reached by telephone Thursday, said the medical bills were her husband's. "I always paid my bills, as well as my medical bills," she said angrily. "I never said medical insurance is not a necessity. It should be anyone's right to what kind of health insurance they have.
"I believe that anyone has unforeseen things that happen to them that are beyond their control," Brown said. "Who says I don't have insurance right now?"
Brown's problems are not likely to affect the outcome in the high court. In January, the business group told the court it had found two new plaintiffs who could take Brown's place. But Brown played a crucial role in the case reaching the Supreme Court.
"There was time pressure" to find a plaintiff for the case, Harned said. "And candidly, it is not as easy as it sounds" to find someone. She recalls that Brown was outspoken and stepped forward as a volunteer. The lawyers found a second plaintiff in Kaj Ahlburg, a retired New York investment banker living in Port Angeles, Wash.
But when U.S. District Judge Roger Vinson declared the mandate unconstitutional in January 2011, he pointed to Mary Brown's complaint. "She is a small-business owner" who "does not believe the cost of health insurance is a wise or acceptable use of her resources," he said.
In August, the U.S. 11th Circuit Court of Appeals in Atlanta agreed. Florida and 25 other states were suing, but they needed an individual to contest the mandate. "Mary Brown has standing to challenge the individual mandate," the judges said, and "as long as at least one plaintiff has standing to raise" the claim, the court can rule. The Obama administration appealed, and the Supreme Court said in November it would decide the constitutional challenge.
But by then, Brown's small auto repair shop near Panama City, Fla., had closed, and she and her husband had filed a Chapter 7 bankruptcy petition. Brown said in the petition that her only income was $275 a month in unemployment benefits.
Her bankruptcy came to light in December, when a Wall Street Journal reporter interviewed her about her role in the historic case. In a video interview, Brown said freedom from government was the issue. "I'm not fighting just for me," she said. "It's my choice to have healthcare, not theirs."
Shortly afterward, lawyers for the National Federation of Independent Business informed the court of Brown's troubles, and sent along a copy of her bankruptcy filing.
The couple owed $2,140 to Bay Medical Center in Panama City, $610 to Bay Medical Physicians, $835 to an eye doctor in Alabama and $900 to a specialist in Mississippi.
"This is a very common problem. We cover $30 million in charity and uncompensated care every year," said Christa Hild, a spokeswoman for the hospital center. "If it's a bad debt, we have to absorb it."
The business group's lawyers say they weren't backing away from their bankrupt plaintiff. "She wants to continue in the case. And as long as she doesn't want healthcare, she qualifies as a plaintiff in our mind," Harned said.
Ian Duncan in the Washington Bureau contributed to this report.