The Supreme Court agreed today to decide the fate of President Obama’s healthcare law and its requirement that all Americans have basic health insurance by 2014.
The justices said they would rule on constitutional challenges to the entire law brought by top Republican officials from 26 states, who contend the Democratic-controlled Congress overstepped its authority in passing the measure.
The high court is likely to rule on the issue by late June as the presidential campaign moves into high gear.
In agreeing to hear the cases, the court said it will decide four questions that have arisen: Is it constitutional for Congress to require all persons to have health insurance by 2014? If this provision is struck down, can it be “severed” from the law or must the entire statute fall? Is it unfair to the states to force them to pay the extra cost of expanding the Medicaid program? Finally, should a decision be put off until 2015 when the first taxpayers would pay a penalty for not having health insurance?
The latter question gives the court a way to put off a decision if the justices opt to do so. A long-standing tax law says judges should not decide on “tax” cases until someone has paid the tax, and the penalty for not having health insurance would be collected by the Internal Revenue Service.
The justices expect to hear arguments in the cases in March.
No Republican in the House or Senate voted in favor of the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act in 2010, but the law would need the vote of at least one Republican appointee on the Supreme Court to survive the constitutional challenge in 2012. Five of the nine justices were named by Republican presidents, while four were named by Democrats.
The Constitution says Congress may “regulate commerce,” and Democrats say national regulation of the health insurance market was needed to control costs, spread the risk and make sure all persons could buy insurance, even if they had a preexisting medical condition.
The Republican governors and state attorneys who challenged the law argued that the power to regulate commerce does not extend to requiring unwilling buyers to purchase insurance. They also allege that the law’s expansion of Medicaid will force the states to take on extra burdens.
Sponsors of the law estimate that it will extend health coverage to 16 million more children and low-income adults through expanding Medicaid, and the federal government will pay more 90% of the added cost. The Republican-led states object nonetheless and say they are being forced to accept an unfair deal.
Former Solicitor Gen. Paul Clement, a George W. Bush administration veteran, will represent the Republican-led states, while the Obama administration's solicitor general, Donald Verrilli Jr., will defend the law.
In his appeal, Clement said the law is “unprecedented” in its scope and “raises constitutional issues that go to the heart of our system of limited government.”
Verrilli said the mandate for all to have health insurance is needed to deal with freeloaders.
Each year, individuals without insurance “shift billions of dollars of health care costs to others,” including the taxpayers, he said. In 2008, the uninsured cost hospitals, insurers and taxpayers $43 billion, he said.
The White House quickly released a statement in support of the court's action.
"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 health care 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."