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Back to Section One | Back to Arts & Entertainment
posted Friday, June 29, 2012 - Volume 40 Issue 26
Supreme Court upholds Affordable Care Act
'Obamacare' mandate ruled legal under government's power to tax
Section One
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Supreme Court upholds Affordable Care Act
'Obamacare' mandate ruled legal under government's power to tax

by Mike Andrew - SGN Staff Writer

In a 5-to-4 decision announced June 28, the U.S. Supreme Court upheld President Obama's signature health care legislation, the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act.

The court's decision was surprising for two reasons.

First, Justice Anthony Kennedy - who was presumed by nearly all observers to be the 'swing vote' who would decide the case - ended up voting with the minority. It was Chief Justice John Roberts, a Bush II appointee, who voted with the court's more liberal wing to uphold the law.

Second, a majority on the court rejected the Obama administration's claim that the individual mandate to buy health insurance is constitutional under the interstate commerce clause, but upheld the provision anyway. Even though Congress may not mandate coverage under the commerce clause, the court said, it may do so using its authority to collect taxes.

Roberts wrote the majority opinion, in which Justices Stephen Breyer, Ruth Ginsburg, Elena Kagan, and Sonia Sotomayor joined him.

'In this case & it is reasonable to construe what Congress has done as increasing taxes on those who have a certain amount of income but choose to go without health insurance,' Roberts wrote in the key passage in his opinion. 'Such legislation is within Congress's power to tax.'

'The federal government does not have the power to order people to buy health insurance,' Roberts added. 'The federal government does have the power to impose a tax on those without health insurance.'

Justice Antonin Scalia wrote the principal dissent, with Justices Samuel Alito, Kennedy, and Clarence Thomas joining him. Thomas also added a separate dissent that focused on the commerce clause.

'To say that the Individual Mandate merely imposes a tax is not to interpret the statute but to rewrite it,' Scalia said in his dissent. 'Imposing a tax through judicial legislation inverts the constitutional scheme, and places the power to tax in the branch of government least accountable to the citizenry.'

In a statement after the court's decision was announced, Obama explained the importance of the individual mandate to health care reform as a whole.

'Today, the Supreme Court & upheld the principle that people who can afford health insurance should take the responsibility to buy health insurance,' the president said. 'This is important for two reasons.

'First, when uninsured people who can afford coverage get sick, and show up at the emergency room for care, the rest of us end up paying for their care in the form of higher premiums.

'And second, if you ask insurance companies to cover people with pre-existing conditions, but don't require people who can afford it to buy their own insurance, some folks might wait until they're sick to buy the care they need - which would also drive up everybody else's premiums.'

Predictably, Democrats hailed the court's decision and Republicans deplored it.

'All Americans won today!' Rep. Jim McDermott (D-Wash.) exclaimed, speaking to SGN by phone from D.C.

'Think what it will mean to people with AIDS - it means you can still pay for your meds without worrying that you have a lifetime cap on benefits. Or that you'll be excluded [from coverage] because of your pre-existing condition.'

'You know, I went to the oral arguments,' he continued, 'and I watched Kennedy, and I watched Roberts, and I came back and told my staff, 'It's gonna be 6-3.' I was wrong about Kennedy, but I was right about Roberts.

'Roberts is a right-winger, but he's not so far out that he's unaware of what affects real people.'

'This is a victory for the health care security and stability of Washington families,' Sen. Patty Murray (D-Wash.) said in a statement. 'Today's ruling means that families and small business owners will continue to benefit from better access, more choices, and a health care system that no longer works only for those who can afford it.

'It means that health care decisions will be in the hands of patients and their doctors, and that insurance companies will be forced to compete for the business of Washington state families.'

Washington's other U.S. senator, Maria Cantwell, also a Democrat, promised to work on reducing health care costs even further.

'Following today's decision, I will continue to strongly advocate for the principles of increasing access to quality health care, controlling health care costs, and improving the efficiency of our medical delivery system,' she said in a statement.

'As a member of the [Senate] Small Business Committee, I will continue to work with Washington state small businesses to reduce the costs of health care and support small business job growth.'

Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney, on the other hand, promised, 'I'll do what the justices didn't' and repeal the law if he is elected.

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