The nation's highest court is about to judge the president's signature legislative achievement — and it's not just politicians who are invested in the outcome
MARCH 13, 2012, AT 6:45 AM
by Bill Frist, MD
Is the new health care law constitutional? You might think it doesn't matter — or at least, that it doesn't matter to you. But the fact is, the Supreme Court's decision on President Obama's Affordable Care Act (ACA) will almost certainly affect you directly.
How, exactly? For one thing, the court's decision could play a key role in determining our next president and possibly your next congressman. If you are poor, the ruling may decide whether or not you have coverage. If you are not poor, it will impact how much you pay for health care. If you own a small business, it might determine if you must purchase health insurance for your employees. And if you work for a large business, it may determine whether you still receive your insurance from your employer. If you're a doctor, it will likely affect your reimbursement. If you're a patient, it will determine your benefits.
On March 26, 27, and 28, the Supreme Court will hear extensive oral arguments on the constitutionality of the ACA. This is the culmination of 26 states filing suits in federal district courts and opinions from seven federal appellate courts. A final written opinion likely will be delivered in June, 18 months before the individual mandate kicks in and just five months before the presidential election.
If the individual mandate is ultimately deemed constitutional, then for the first time in our history, you will have to purchase a product to live in America.
The ACA is a highly charged law that, according to the latest RealClearPolitics average, is viewed unfavorably by half of Americans. The law essentially does two massive, controversial things: (1) Mandates that individuals purchase health insurance coverage, and (2) expands Medicaid by 16 million enrollees. This expansion means almost one in four Americans will be on Medicaid, the government program originally intended for our poorest citizens. If you don't purchase insurance, you will pay a fine of $695 per adult and $347 per child.
Together, these provisions will reduce the uninsured by 32 million, but will still leave an estimated 23 million individuals uninsured in 2020.
The focus of the Supreme Court opinion will be on the constitutionality of these two issues, though two additional items will also be considered. One is whether the entire law falls if a part of it, such as the mandate, is ruled unconstitutional, and the other is whether the court has jurisdiction to rule at all now, since the law has yet to go fully into effect.
There is already plenty of discussion on the legal merits of the case, particularly as it regards the taxing power and the Commerce Clause. But what are the very real implications of the upcoming ruling? Here is what to look for:
1. If the court upholds the individual mandate, it will take effect 18 months later — unless Congress acts to repeal or postpone it (which won't happen as long as Obama is in the White House). If the individual mandate is ultimately deemed constitutional, then for the first time in our history, you will have to purchase a product to live in America.
2. If the individual mandate is ruled unconstitutional, the court will then decide whether to let the rest of the law stand, including the expansion of Medicaid and the largely popular individual insurance reforms. If the rest is left intact, the Congressional Budget Office projects that 16 million of the 32 million Americans expected to gain insurance under the law would be ineligible for the new coverage and that non-group, individual premiums might increase 15 to 20 percent. It would then be up to each state to decide whether or not to adopt the individual mandate.
3. If the court decides that the Medicaid expansion is constitutional, it will take effect in 2014 — unless Congress acts to postpone, repeal, or not fund it. But if the expansion is left intact, with almost a quarter of all Americans covered by Medicaid, the program would grow to include a portion of the middle class.
4. If Medicaid expansion is overruled, coverage will remain at current, varying state levels, and an estimated 16 million low-income individuals will not be able to take advantage of the new Medicaid coverage that would have begun in 2014.
5. Politically, if the new law is judged constitutional, Democrats will celebrate the judicial affirmation of the spirit and substance of the historic reform, illustrating President Obama's leadership. Republicans would fan the existing flames of unpopularity among the majority of Americans, citing federal government overreach, rallying around an election call for repeal as they did in 2010. If any part is unconstitutional, the bases of both parties will be emboldened to make health reform the defining issue, after the economy, in the elections in November.
This one is worth following. It will be a game-changer. And not just for the politicians and pundits in Washington. It's a game-changer for you, too.
Dr. William H. Frist is a nationally acclaimed heart transplant surgeon, former U.S. Senate Majority Leader, the chairman of Hope Through Healing Hands and Tennessee SCORE, professor of surgery, and author of six books. Learn more about his work at BillFrist.com.