Supreme Court to Decide Healthcare Reform

The Supreme Court has agreed to rule on the fate of President Barack Obama’s Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act (ACA) healthcare law, with an election-year ruling due by July on the most comprehensive overhaul in nearly a half century.  The decision had been widely expected because the Obama administration asked the nation’s highest court to uphold the landmark legislation and 26 states asked that the law be ruled unconstitutional.

President Obama expressed confidence that the court would uphold the law when the decision is handed down, just four months prior to the 2012 election.  “Thanks to the Affordable Care Act, one million more young Americans have health insurance, women are getting mammograms and preventive services without paying an extra penny out of their own pocket and insurance companies have to spend more of your premiums on healthcare instead of advertising and bonuses,” said Dan Pfeiffer, the White House communications director.  “We know the Affordable Care Act is constitutional and are confident the Supreme Court will agree,” Pfeiffer said.  The administration pointed out that other landmark legislation, such as the Social Security Act, the Civil Rights Act and the Voting Rights Act, all faced similar legal challenges that failed.

Republicans have vowed to repeal “Obamacare,” but that promise will have to be modified if the high court undercuts the law as written.  A Supreme Court victory would make President Obama even more confident that the law is the major accomplishment of his first term.

Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, (R-KY) said “this misguided law represents an unprecedented and unconstitutional expansion of the federal government into the daily lives of every American.”  The majority of Americans agree,” McConnell said.  “In both public surveys and at the ballot box, Americans have rejected the law’s mandate that they must buy government-approved health insurance, and I hope the Supreme Court will do the same.”

Despite Republicans’ insistence that the ACA is unconstitutional, only one of the four federal appeals courts that have heard cases on healthcare reform has struck down even a part of the law.

One of the ACA’s most vocal opponents is Karen Harned of the National Federation of Independent Business, who said: “We are confident in the strength of our case and hopeful that we will ultimately prevail.  Our nation’s job-creators depend on a decision being reached before the harmful effects of this new law become irreversible.”

Legal experts believe that the healthcare vote will be close on the nine-member court, which is comprised of five conservatives and four liberals.  Moderate conservative Justice Anthony Kennedy, who often is the swing vote, and could well cast the decisive vote.  Paul Heldman, senior analyst at Potomac Research Group, which provides Washington policy research for the investment community, said he still leaned toward the view that the law’s requirement that individuals buy insurance will be upheld.  “We continue to have a high level of conviction that the Supreme Court will leave much of the health reform law standing, even if finds unconstitutional the requirement that individuals buy coverage,” he wrote.

An impressive 5 ½ hours of oral arguments will be held in late February or March. The primary issue is whether the “individual mandate” section – which requires virtually all Americans to buy health insurance by 2014 or face fines — is an improper exercise of federal authority.  According to the states, if that linchpin provision is unconstitutional, the entire law must be also be overturned.  Joining Florida in the challenge are Alabama, Alaska, Arizona, Colorado, Georgia, Idaho, Indiana, Iowa, Kansas, Louisiana, Maine, Michigan, Mississippi, Nebraska, Nevada, North Dakota, Ohio, Pennsylvania, South Carolina, South Dakota, Texas, Utah, Washington, Wisconsin and Wyoming.  Virginia and Oklahoma have filed their own challenges, along with other groups and individuals opposed to the law.

According to USA Today’s Joan Biskupic, “The leading question before the justices is whether in requiring most Americans to buy insurance, Congress exceeded its power to regulate interstate commerce.  The case is on track to be heard by March, and a ruling would come by the end of June, just before the Republican and Democratic conventions for the 2012 presidential election. The law known as the Affordable Care Act, intended to extend medical care nationwide, is the centerpiece of the Obama domestic agenda, and all major GOP presidential candidates oppose it.  The legal challengers, including a group of 26 states, say the law went beyond federal power and, if allowed to stand, would hurt small businesses and compromise individual choices on medical care.”

Writing in The Hill, Sam Baker says that “As they weigh the mandate, the justices will have to consider how it affects other parts of the law.  If they find the coverage requirement unconstitutional, they will have to decide whether to strike it down on its own or instead strike down the entire law.  The justices also will determine whether a separate federal law bars them from reaching a decision on the mandate before it takes effect.  People can’t challenge a tax before they have to pay it, and the Obama administration has defended the mandate by invoking Congress’s taxing power.  But it has also said the court should bypass procedural issues and rule directly on the mandate.”

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