By Professor Brietta Clark
Today, the Supreme Court upheld the most controversial part of the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act - the individual mandate. The mandate requires citizens to purchase health insurance by 2014 or pay a tax, unless they qualify for an exemption. The mandate was held to be a constitutional exercise of Congess's tax and spend power. Because the mandate was held constitutional, there was no need to consider whether the other private insurance reforms would survive: they do.
The court also considered a challenge to the Medicaid expansion provision: this provision expands eligibility to all adults who fall below a certain income level. Many states like this expansion because it is generously funded by the federal government - 100% in the beginning. Other states challenged it because states that refuse to comply with these new eligibility requirements risk losing existing Medicaid funding. The court seemed to create a compromise in this case. It upheld the expansion program (and importantly the opportunity to get new federal funding to subsidize the expansion for states that want to participate), but it held that states must be given a "genuine choice" to decide whether or not to participate. This means that the federal government cannot take away states' existing funding if they do not want to participate in the expansion. Unfortunately, this means that there will be even more inconsistency among the different states in terms of the quality of and access to health care for our most vulnerable citizens.
This Supreme Court's opinion is very long, and it will likely take legal scholars some time to understand and debate the full implications of this decision for the federal government's power to create and regulate social welfare programs, as well as for constitutional law more generally. For now, though, I think the significant practical implications of this decision for health policy are clear. The Affordable Care Act is the most comprehensive attempt to increase health care access through insurance expansion, and to try to reduce health inequity for women, people with disabilities, and racial and ethnic minorities, that we have seen in decades. I also think it is safe to say that in this polarized environment this could be our last chance to try to fix the healthcare system in a meaningful way for many more decades. No one can say for sure whether this reform will work, but because of the court's decision, we will at least get the chance to find out.
That said, I will continue to follow health reform closely, as will other health care advocates and legal scholars, because there are still many questions to be answered. President Obama's health reform law offers promises of affordability, meaningful health benefits, accessibility to quality providers, and fairness in how benefits are allocated, but whether such promises will be realized depends on how public programs are administered and how closely private insurers are regulated. To follow progress on implementation, check out my blog. For the full Supreme Court opinion, click here.