On Wednesday, the U.S. Justice Department appealed a ruling of the health care reform law’s unconstitutionality to the U.S. Supreme Court. The timing of the appeal means that the Supreme Court could hear arguments in its next term, which begins next week. If the Supreme Court accepts the case, a ruling could be handed down by the conclusion of the term in June 2012.
National health care reform legislation has been destined for the Supreme Court seemingly since its inception. When the Supreme Court declined to fast track the inevitable legal challenge in April, however, few thought a decision would be reached before the conclusion of the 2012 elections.
At the heart of the debates over constitutionality is the individual mandate. This component of the Affordable Care Act mandates that virtually all Americans either purchase insurance or pay a fine.
The requirement or mandate to purchase insurance is designed to lower the cost of health insurance across the board. Currently, healthy individuals in their 20s known as “young immortals” often forgo purchasing health insurance because they rarely get sick and don’t want to spend the money. As a result, health insurance companies end up with sick clients who are expensive to insure. Young immortals are very inexpensive to insure. By requiring all Americans to purchase insurance, young immortals are swept into the current, thereby allowing insurance companies to spread risk and lower costs.
The concept of the individual mandate has been controversial from the beginning. Since the Affordable Care Act became law in March 2010, there have been at least 26 challenges to the legislation in the federal courts system.
One of the most significant challenges to the health care law came through the case State of Florida v. U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. The plaintiffs in that case include the Attorney Generals of 26 different states, including Utah.
The central issue of the case is the individual mandate. The federal government asserts that it has the authority to require individuals to purchase insurance while the plaintiffs argue the mandate is unconstitutional.
In January, Judge Roger Vinson ruled the individual mandate was unconstitutional. He also determined the mandate to be inseparable from the legislation as a whole and therefore ruled that the entirety of the Affordable Care Act was also unconstitutional.
In August, the Eleventh Circuit Court of Appeals upheld Vinson’s ruling in a 2-1 vote— with a caveat. The individual mandate was unconstitutional, but the other parts of the legislation were not.
It was a victory for both sides. The plaintiffs had their ruling that the individual mandate was unconstitutional while the federal governing secured judicial opinion that the remainder of the legislation was constitutional.
The Affordable Care Act sans the individual mandate may be constitutional, but the legislation can’t function without the financial benefits associated with it.
Wednesday’s appeal mean the case could be picked up in time for the next term of the Supreme Court, which begins next week. The Court could take a pass and let the election cycle finish before weighing in.
However, if they accept the case now, a ruling will be forthcoming by the end of the term next June.
If the Supreme Court acts now and rules in favor of the individual mandate and the Affordable Care Act, Democrats will head into November with momentum. On the other hand, if the Court rules that the legislation is unconstitutional, Republicans may have the advantage.
The implications of a ruling could be monumental for the 2012 elections.
Kurt Manwaring is pursuing a graduate degree in public administration at the University of Utah. He is a consultant with Manwaring Consulting, LLC and maintains a personal blog at www.kurtsperspective.blogspot.com.