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US Supreme Court and Health Care Reform

US Health Care Reform: Getting Decided Once and For All?

Since his inauguration in January 2009, “Obamacare,” as President Obama’s universal health care project is approvingly and disapprovingly known, has produced a whirlwind of controversy. After over a year of fiery debate in Congress, President Obama finally signed the 2,000-plus page legislation on March 23, 2010. Since then, the debate over universal access to health insurance has continued with no less vigor in the state and federal courts. But on Monday, November 14, the Supreme Court of the United States announced that it will be ending the argument over the law’s constitutionality once and for all in June 2012.

Comic by: Matthieu Santerre

The Supreme Court announced that it has scheduled an unprecedented 5 1/2 hours of oral arguments for the case in March. Normally, the Justices hear no more than 30 minutes of oral arguments per case – 1 hour for very important cases – however, the Court has scheduled over 1 hour per question regarding the health care reform law’s constitutionality. The schedule is as follows:

  • 2 hours – Did Congress overstep its constitutional limits in mandating that all United States citizens must purchase health insurance? (Namely, does the law fall within Congress’s powers to “to regulate commerce” or “to lay and collect taxes”?)
  • 90 minutes – If so, can the mandate be cut from the balance of the law, or must the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act be struck down with it?
  • 1 hour – “The Medicaid Question”: Did Congress overstepped its bounds in “expanding the eligibility and coverage thresholds that states must adopt to remain eligible to participate in Medicaid”?
  • 1 hour – “The Anti-Injunction Act Question”: Is the case premature to decide under the Anti-Injunction Act, which bars suits “for the purpose of restraining the assessment or collection of any tax”?

This schedule is interesting in that depending on how the Court rules, it could either strike down the entire Obamacare law; strike down bits and pieces; leave the legislation intact and compel states to comply; or – based on the last question – declare the case premature on a broad interpretation of “tax” and leave it undecided.

Amidst the judicial fervor of the last 18 months, Obamacare reached four Federal Circuit Courts in five cases. The law was upheld in three cases – 6th Circuit, Michigan; D.C. Circuit; 4th Circuit, Western District of Virginia – and not upheld in two – 4th Circuit, Eastern District of Virginia; 11th Circuit, Florida. The New York Times has a very comprehensive table on the majority opinions of each of these cases here: http://www.nytimes.com/interactive/2011/11/13/us/politics/challenges-to-the-health-law.html . It was the disagreement between the circuit courts which compelled the Supreme Court to address the health care question. Although many different issues were brought up among the circuit courts, the Supreme Court granted certiorari to the Florida case, in which the 11th Circuit Court found that Congress had overstepped its constitutional powers to regulate commerce in compelling citizens to purchase health insurance. The case is called Department of Health and Human Services v. Florida, No. 11-398.

Dept. of Health and Human Services v. Florida is scheduled to be decided in June 2012 – right in the middle of 2012 presidential election fever. It is interesting to speculate the effect – if any – that the decision will have on the race. Some believe that a failure of the health care law to stand up to constitutional scrutiny will be Obama’s downfall. Others believe that it will give the current president a chance to court voters disappointed with the decision. On the other hand, a favorable decision for the law may just antagonize the right and provide fire to the Republican campaign. After all, along with abortion, there are few issues as contentious among Democrats and Republicans in the US as health care.

Now we wait and ask: is universal health care in the cards for the United States? The next few months should bring a number of posters, slogans, and loud debate on how the Supreme Court should decide.

Works Cited: http://www.nytimes.com/2011/11/15/us/supreme-court-to-hear-case-challenging-health-law.html?pagewanted=1&_r=1&ref=healthcarereform

By Anna Roy

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