But opponents say that the cost-cutting provisions probably won't work.
Devon Herrick, a health economist at the free-market National Center for Policy Analysis, said the law sets up a "slippery slope" that will increase costs, not lower them.
"If Congress and company have the legal authority to decide the minimum coverage you must have, all manner of lobbyists and special interests and providers for specific diseases will descend on Washington and state capitals, as they always have, to make sure that their respective services are covered by that mandate," Herrick said.
The law's supporters argue that without the requirement that people have insurance coverage while they're healthy, there won't be enough money in the risk pool to pay to take care of them when the need for health care eventually -- and inevitably -- arises.
"If people don't feel like paying, then get sick and go to the emergency room or the hospital, those people's costs will be added on to our insurance bills as they are today, which makes it much more expensive," Rother said.
Lower courts, different interpretations
The legal trail of challenges leading up to the Supreme Court has involved more than two dozen lawsuits and appeals.
Last June, the Cincinnati-based 6th Circuit Court of Appeals ruled that the individual mandate was valid because of the Constitution's Commerce Clause, which allows Congress to regulate commerce that takes place among states.
In August, a district judge in Florida ruled that the individual mandate was unconstitutional. However, the 11th Circuit Court of Appeals, which reviewed his decision, rejected that argument and found that the Affordable Care Act could stand even if the individual mandate provision were removed, Landers said.
Then in November, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia also upheld the individual mandate based on the Commerce Clause.
The U.S. Supreme Court chose to review the Florida case, which now includes 25 other states as plaintiffs, along with the National Federation of Independent Business.
The law has been controversial since it was passed by Congress and signed by Obama in March 2010. Poll after poll has found that Americans don't like the individual mandate. But a recent Harris Interactive/HealthDay poll revealed that people are starting to warm up to certain key provisions of the law -- such as the ban on insurance companies turning away applicants with preexisting health problems.
Some popular provisions -- including allowing children to stay on their parents' health plans until age 26 -- are already in place.
Other provisions meant to help older Americans began in 2011, with changes to continue through 2020.
Medicaid expansion a vital component of the law
States must comply with the Medicaid expansion no later than 2014. But some worry that a big influx of new enrollees could strain medical specialties such as obstetrics/gynecology, pediatrics and family practice.
Dr. Peter Carmel, president of the American Medical Association, called the expansion "an important step in the right direction," even though many "physicians are currently unable to accept Medicaid patients due to low reimbursement rates."
Added Dr. Glen Stream, president of the American Academy of Family Physicians: "For the time being, [the new law] seems like the best option to get everyone covered with health insurance. Otherwise, people are carved out from good primary-care services, good preventive care and wellness services, and care of their chronic illnesses until sometimes it's too late."
The Supreme Court ruling is expected in June. The court could go one of several ways:
- It could rule the individual mandate is unconstitutional and the entire law invalid.
- It could rule the mandate is constitutional and the entire law can stand.
- It could reach a middle ground: that the individual mandate is unconstitutional but the rest of the law can stand.
- It could decline to rule on the case and the health reforms would proceed.
The decision may pivot on the vote of Justice Antonin Scalia, a court conservative. Suffolk University's Landers said that in a previous case that centered on the Commerce Clause, "Scalia wrote a concurrence in which he took a very broad view of Congress' authority. So I think he has a lot of work to do to get himself out from under that concurrence."