President Barack Obama’s administration scored a huge victory last Thursday as the U.S. Supreme Court upheld most of the provisions in the president’s historic health care law. In a 5-4 decision, the Affordable Care act that many states and small businesses claimed was unconstitutional was deemed sound, for the most part, by the high court.
“Today’s decision was a victory for people all over this country whose lives will be more secure because of this law and the Supreme Court’s decision to uphold it,” said Obama in address to the nation immediately after the ruling was announced. The president downplayed “the politics” of the ruling but a political windstorm nonetheless immediately kicked off.
The president and Democrats had their political fingers crossed in the months leading up to Thursday’s decision. Opponents of the health care act, the first sweeping legislation of its kind to be passed in Congress since Medicare was created under President Lyndon B. Johnson’s administration, claimed that forcing people to get insurance was a violation of individual rights.
Illinois Republican U.S. Congressman Joe Walsh called the mandatory insurance ruling “unacceptable.”
“By upholding the federal health care law the Court has agreed to subject our nation to insufferable debt, inferior health outcomes, and a complete invasion of personal liberty and that should be disturbing regardless of political affiliation, said Kendall Antekeier of the Chicago-based non-profit think tank The Heartland Institute.
Republicans have said Obama flip-flopped on calling the penalty for not buying insurance a tax. As the law goes, people who purchase health insurance would get tax breaks. Those who can afford to buy health insurance but choose not to would be held “responsible for that choice,” according to the White House, by way of taxing.
The dissenting justices, including Justice Clarence Thomas, the only African American justice on the High Court, said that calling the penalty for not buying insurance a tax was flawed.
“To say that the individual mandate merely imposes a tax is not to interpret the statute but to rewrite it,” said the four dissenting justices.
But supporters of the president’s plan include several civil and human rights groups as well as workers and leaders in the medical industry and the conservative Supreme Court Justice, John Roberts, who provided the deciding vote.
“(The penalty’s) practical characteristics pass muster as a tax under our narrowest interpretations of the taxing powers,” said Chief Justice Roberts. His support blindsided Republicans and helped Obama score victory in this landmark case.
In 2005, Roberts vowed at his confirmation hearing to act as a judicial umpire, calling balls and strikes without taking sides. But on Thursday, all of that changed.
In the ruling upholding the health care law, Roberts wrote for the majority that it’s not the court’s job to decide whether Obama’s plan “embodies sound policies. That judgment is entrusted to the nation’s elected leaders.”
Roberts’ decision socked even Paul Clement, the lawyer who had made the case against the law in oral arguments before the high court in March.
“If you told people that there were four solid votes to strike down the whole thing, you know, I think most people … would have been surprised to find that among the four were Justice (Anthony) Kennedy and not the chief justice,” Clement said.
Roberts had been a favorite of Republicans ever since President George W. Bush picked the federal judge to replace Chief Justice William Rehnquist.
Alison Canto is pleased that the president’s health care reform plan, which Obama signed into law March 23, 2010, will continue to be implemented. The plan began taking effect two years ago and is expected to be fully rolled out by 2014. Canto, mother of a young adult college student and a 20-year worker in the medical industry, said the law impacts her on two fronts.
Under the Act, young adults, like her 21-year-old son Hakeem, will be able to stay on their parents’ insurance through age 26. Already expecting to being saddled with higher education debt, Canto said at least her son doesn’t have to worry about medical bills or simply having medical insurance in the case he doesn’t find a job right away upon graduation.
“I personally think it’s a good idea because as a mom, if he doesn’t get a job that gives him good insurance, then you’ll always be worried about that,” she said of the Act’s Young Adult Coverage. “A lot of people go into debt having to pay hospital bills.”
For two decades Canto has worked on the business side of the health care industry. Currently she is a quality and safety manager at Rush hospital on the West Side. As of the last seven years, she has also been a nurse and works in the Intensive Care Unit at the University of Chicago. She said the Act also looks out for the uninsured and underinsured who often forgo preventive care and don’t seek medical attention until conditions become chronic – even life-threatening, and more costly.
Donna Thompson is head of Access Community Health Network, the Chicago area’s largest private primary care provider organization, which has over 200,000 patients and 50 community clinics. She said 45,000 of those patients have no insurance and 120,000 receive Medicaid through the state. Thompson is hopeful that with all Americans said to be able to have access to insurance by 2014 under this Act, it will help to redress racial and ethnic medical disparities.
“The face of the uninsured has changed radically in this country,” she said. “What we’re hoping from this landmark legislation is that, for those with an insurance card … that people will now want to engage more actively with their health care provider. In the end it costs more if people continue to come in chronically ill and they’ve neglected their health. In the end we all pay for that.”
By Rhonda Gillespie