Supreme Court upholds core of Obama healthcare reform
US President Barack Obama’s signature healthcare overhaul law survived a major test on Thursday after the Supreme Court ruled to uphold a measure that requires nearly all Americans to buy insurance or pay a penalty.
In a landmark decision, the US Supreme Court ruled on Thursday to uphold the centrepiece of President Barack Obama’s signature healthcare overhaul legislation, which requires most Americans to obtain insurance by 2014 or face paying a penalty. The judgement comes as a major victory for the Obama administration with the country’s presidential election just four months away.
Known as the Affordable Care Act, the divisive healthcare reform bill was challenged by 13 of the country’s 50 states minutes after it was signed into law by President Obama in March 2010. Another 13 states soon joined the legal challenge, underscoring the deeply polarising nature of the legislation.
Asked whether Congress had overstepped its authority by requiring nearly all Americans to purchase health coverage, the Supreme Court voted 5-4 that the “individual mandate” was legal because it could be defined as a tax. In a surprise move, the court’s conservative chief justice, John Roberts, was among those who ruled in favour of upholding the controversial measure.
“The Affordable Care Act’s requirement that certain individuals pay a financial penalty for not obtaining health insurance may reasonably be characterized as a tax”, Chief Justice Roberts wrote in the court’s majority opinion.
“Because the Constitution permits such a tax, it is not our role to forbid it, or to pass upon its wisdom or fairness,” he concluded.
Not all aspects of the law under review, however, fared as well as the individual mandate. The Supreme Court ruled to curtail another major tenet of the healthcare reform law that required states to expand Medicaid, a government insurance programme for low-income individuals and families. Opponents to the measure had said it amounted to federal coercion.
‘Obamacare’ hanging in the balance
In a national address shortly after the historic ruling, Obama thanked the Supreme Court for their decision, hailing it as a “victory for people all over this country”.
But the ACA’s future had not always looked so bright. Confidence that the Supreme Court would uphold “Obamacare” was severely shaken when oral arguments were given at the case’s hearing on March 26-28.
Many of the court’s more conservative justices had come off as openly hostile to the law, with Justice Antonin Scalia famously raising what came to be known as the “broccoli argument”. If the government could force people to buy health insurance, Scalia said, what else could it compel its citizens to purchase?
“Everybody has to buy food sooner or later…Therefore, you can make people buy broccoli”, Scalia argued.
Even Justice Anthony Kennedy, typically seen as a swing vote, put the law’s supporters on edge after engaging the US Solicitor General Donald Verrilli in a tough line of questioning.
Kennedy ultimately joined the law’s four dissenting justices, which included Scalia, Clarence Thomas and Samuel Alito.
Fight over healthcare far from over
The Supreme Court’s decision gives Obama a welcome boost in his battle with Republican candidate Mitt Romney, whom polls have recently put neck-and-neck with the incumbent.
But it is unlikely to end the political wrangling over healthcare reform. Republican House Majority Leader Eric Cantor quickly took to Twitter on Thursday, flatly stating, “On July 11, the House will once again vote to repeal ‘Obamacare’”.
Romney also came out against the decision, making it a campaign promise to have it repealed.
"What the court did not do on the last day in session, I will do on my first day if elected president of the United States, and that is that I will act to repeal 'Obamacare'", Romney said, calling the law “bad policy”.
Obama, however, moved swiftly to capitalise on his victory by silencing the debate.
“What we won’t do - what the country can’t afford to do - is re-fight the political battles of two years ago or go back to the way things were. With today’s announcement, it’s time for us to move forward”, he said.