WASHINGTON – The Supreme Court said Monday it will consider a challenge to the Obama administration's health care law next year, setting the stage for a legal and political blockbuster.
Surprising no one, but exciting many, justices agreed to hear the claim by Florida and 25 other states that the health care law violates the Constitution. An unusually long four-and-a-half oral argument in the spring is likely to be followed by a decision in late June, in the heat of campaign season.
"It's a very big deal," said Gary Jacobson, professor of politics at the University of California at San Diego. "Health care is the centerpiece of the Obama administration agenda."
The court's nine justices followed their usual practice Monday, in not commenting upon their decision to hear the health care case. At least four of the justices had to agree to hear the case, during a closed-door session held last Thursday.
The court did, though, specify that it will consider the primary question of whether Congress went beyond its constitutional authority when it included the "individual mandate" in the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act.
Under the individual mandate, nearly all individuals must either be covered by health insurance or pay a fee.
The court also said it would consider whether portions of the law might survive if the individual mandate is struck down. Even if justices eventually strike down part of the law, which exceeded 2,400 pages when it passed Congress in 2009, other parts should remain intact, supporters say. The court will also be considering a challenge to the law’s expansion of Medicaid coverage.
The court combined Florida's challenge with a separate one filed by the National Federation of Independent Business, selecting the cases and arguments to be heard from among six petitions. Five petitions were filed by opponents of the law and one was filed by the Obama administration. All agreed the court had to act.
"Time is of the essence," attorney Paul Clement wrote in a legal brief for Florida and other states. "States need to know whether they must adapt their policies to deal with the brave new world ushered in by the (law.)"
It’s also got the potential to be the centerpiece of the 2012 presidential and congressional campaigns.
The 2010 health care law, passed after a prolonged, often ugly partisan struggle, became a symbol for all conservatives loathe about big, overreaching government, and a symbol for others of how much government could make a complex health care system more affordable and accessible.
The law has been in effect since March, 2010, and has dozens of provisions. Many are already in operation, including federal help for community health centers, tax breaks for small businesses that offer employees health insurance and allowing dependent children up to age 26 to stay on their parent’s policies.
Funding is already being given to states to create the health care exchanges that will help consumers shop for coverage. In August, the Department of Health and Human Services gave 13 states and the District of Columbia $185 million to help their efforts.
Starting in 2014, the law's individual mandate covers nearly everyone living in the United States except illegal immigrants, prisoners and some people with religious exemption. Those without insurance will pay a penalty on their tax return, pegged to their annual income.
“Health reform put an end to insurance company abuses and discrimination,” House Minority Whip Steny Hoyer, D-Md., said recently.
The health care mandate alone will ensure that about 16 million additional U.S. residents will be covered by health insurance, according to the Congressional Budget Office. Opponents, though, say the requirement violates the Commerce Clause of the Constitution, which both empowers and constrains Congress.
The clause grants Congress the authority to "regulate commerceamong the several states." This also means, though, that the clause withholds power from Congress if something isn't commerce. The coming Supreme Court fight will revolve around which category the individual insurance mandate falls into.
"The (states) point out that by choosing not to purchase insurance, the uninsured are outside the stream of commerce," the 11th Circuit Court of Appeals noted in an August 2011 ruling striking down the mandate.
But other courts, including a conservative-led panel of the D.C. Circuit Court of Appeals last week, have concluded that Congress was within its Commerce Clause rights.
"Congress determined that decisions about whether and when to purchase health insurance, and how to pay for health care services, are inherently economic," Judge Laurence Silberman wrote for the D.C. Circuit.
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