How Will the Supreme Court Make a Difference in Health Reform?

health care reform debate

After months of court rulings around the country, President Barack Obama and dozens of state officials have managed to move the debate over the constitutionality of health care reform to the U.S. Supreme Court. Exactly what would a decision from the court mean in this health reform debate? How could the justices impact the future of health care?

History of Legal Challenges for Health Reform Law

The Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act, also known as the health care reform law, has been the focus of a number of debates since it was signed into law by President Barack Obama in March, 2010. Before the ink dried on the legislation, 14 states had already filed lawsuits against the law, calling it unconstitutional because it required individuals to purchase health insurance coverage or face penalties.

The number of states filing suit quickly rose to 26 when lawmakers also voiced their disapproval of the law, some stating that reform as a whole should be repealed. By the end of 2010, the constitutionality of the law was being questioned by states through voting procedures as well as the court system.

Here are some standout moments to date in regards to those challenging the health reform law:

  • March 2010: Shortly after Obama signed reform into law, 14 states filed suit stating that its mandate was unconstitutional.
  • May 2010: Missouri was the first state to push for the right to refuse the mandate within health care reform. The following year, 21 additional states would support Missouri’s challenge.
  • October 2010: U.S. District Court Judge Roger Vinson, who presided over the Northern District of Florida, granted states the right to contest whether the health coverage mandate was constitutional.
  • January 2011: Shortly after returning from their holiday break, the House of Representatives passed a procedural vote that would allow lawmakers to possibly repeal health reform law. The vote never made it out of the House, however, because the majority of Senate lawmakers didn’t approve.
  • January 2011: Also in January 2011, Judge Vinson struck down the entire health care reform law, stating that the Commerce Clause does not give Congress the authority to regulate “inactivity.” His ruling, however, did not strike down implementation of the law.
  • June 2011: On June 29, a three-judge panel of the Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit in Cincinnati ruled 2-to-1 in favor of the federal law’s requirement to purchase coverage.
  • August 2011: The 11th Circuit U.S. Court of Appeals in Atlanta ruled that the mandate in the health reform law was unconstitutional. However, it found the law as a whole should stand.
  • September 2011: By May 2011, 31 lawsuits had been filed challenging the reform law. That month, the first case had reached an appeals court. The federal appeals court in Richmond, Virginia eventually saw several cases, one of which it ruled in Sept. 2011 in favor of health reform.
  • November 2011: A panel of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia dismissed a Christian legal group’s lawsuit claiming that the mandate violated religious freedom, which served as a victory for health reform opponents.

Prior to the November trial, the Obama administration and opponents of the law from various states pushed to have their debates heard in what would be known as the health reform Supreme Court showdown of the decade.

Supreme Court and Its Impact on Health Care

Now that a number of lower-level courts have weighed in on the matter, the debates have moved to the Supreme Court. In the week ending October 21, 2011, supporters and opponents of health care reform rushed filings into the high court in hopes of encouraging justices to add the debate to their agenda.

On November 14, the Supreme Court justices announced they will hear the suits filed by 26 states and by the National Federation of Independent Business challenging the law’s individual mandate.

After reviewing key issues in the fall forum session, justices are set to hear oral arguments on the constitutional challenges in the spring. They plan to have an answer to the debates by next summer when the court finishes up its annual term.

The Supreme Court, however, will only be looking at the mandate, not determining the validity of the law as a whole. This means that even after a judgment is determined, the remainder of the law will still stand.

It seems many lawmakers and even court officials believe the law may not be perfect, but has its strong points. One of the noted benefits of health reform is the increased number of young adults covered by health insurance thanks to a portion that allows children to remain on their parents’ policies until the age of 26.

Also, some think the expansion in eligibility requirements for Medicaid will allow more individuals to qualify for coverage. Not to mention that health insurance exchanges are expected to make coverage more affordable for individuals not able to purchase insurance through their employers.

There are still several months ahead before the Supreme Court actually hears the law’s debates. So Americans will have to wait to find out whether they will be required to purchase health insurance by the health reform 2014 deadline.