Court's Verdict on Health-Care Reform Holds Surprises, Legal Experts Say

The battle over the Affordable Care Act may now shift back to Congress, they add

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By Lisa Esposito
HealthDay Reporter

THURSDAY, June 28 (HealthDay News) -- After the U.S. Supreme Court's announcement Thursday that it would uphold most of the 2010 Affordable Care Act, many legal experts were quick to register their surprise at the decision -- and their sense that perhaps the battle over health-care reform was not yet finished.

The complicated 5-to-4 decision allows the law to proceed with its goal of covering more than 30 million uninsured Americans. That includes the controversial "individual mandate" provision, which requires most consumers to buy health care insurance or face a penalty. The court held that the mandate fell under the category of a tax, and as such was constitutional and could stand.

That came as a surprise to Stephen Presser, a professor of legal history at Northwestern University School of Law in Chicago. He had predicted that the Supreme Court would find the health-reform law unconstitutional and the whole package would go down.

"I had thought that the issue of whether [the individual mandate] was a tax was over and done with," Presser said. "This strikes me as a disappointing decision, which fails fully to preserve the limitations on the Constitution of the federal government," he added.

"It's disappointing that all the proponents of the Act had steadfastly said that this was not a tax. That this was not a bill to raise revenues, that this was not a bill to increase health care costs. Had it acknowledged that it was in fact a tax, it's much more doubtful that it would have passed, given the thin margin that it did pass by, it may have made a difference. So what the court has done is salvaged the Act in a Constitutional sleight of hand," Presser said.

But Renee Landers, a professor of law at Suffolk University Law School, had betted on the other side -- that the mandate could still survive -- and today's decision justified her confidence.

"It was hard to stay with that opinion the last few weeks though because everybody was so busy hedging their bets," she said. She was somewhat surprised at one of the four dissenters: "I thought [Justice Anthony] Kennedy would go over for it, but he didn't."

However, she wasn't surprised that Chief Justice John Roberts backed the majority decision.

"I think at the end that Roberts was motivated by that overturning an act of Congress is a really significant action by the court even though not [entirely] unprecedented, and if at all possible the court should work to uphold the Constitution," Landers said.

The decision did limit the expansion of Medicaid as proposed under the law.

"What they said was that the part of the expansion that would penalize states -- that would withdraw all Medicaid funding from the states if they didn't go along with the expansion -- is invalid," Landers explained. "The expansion still exists, but a state can either sign onto it or not and won't lose all its current Medicaid funding if it doesn't go along with the expansion."

While some states are already expanding their Medicaid roles and others are happy to cooperate because of the federal funding they'll receive, she said, "there are always those states who are very parsimonious -- not generous -- in granting Medicaid benefits to adults. So basically, this decision will have the effect of limiting the impact of the law in getting more adults insurance coverage."

Another expert, Robert Field, a professor of law in the department of health management and policy at Drexel University's School of Public Health, weighed in and found that each side may have gained from the decision.

"I do think this is potentially a win for both sides, although the losers in the case may not immediately see it this way," Field added. "I think [President Barack] Obama wins politically. He gets around the charge that [Republican Mitt] Romney had been making that he wasted all his political capital on something that was unconstitutional."

And for conservatives, "there is no new precedent that expands Congress' power" when it comes to the Medicaid provision, Field added.