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U.S. Supreme Court to Hear Challenge to Health Care Reform Law

The court's ruling on the law could come next summer

En español | The U.S. Supreme Court has scheduled oral arguments on the challenge to President Obama's health care law in a landmark case that will affect every American.

See also: Health care law: What's in effect, what's still to come.

The arguments are set to take place March 26 through 28, filling the entire court calendar for the week with the debate over the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act. A ruling could come by the end of June in the midst of the presidential and congressional campaigns. All the Republican presidential candidates favor repealing the law.

US Supremee Court, health care reform update

Photo by John Corbitt, Getty Images

Will the Supreme Court declare the individual mandate unconstitutional?

"We know the Affordable Care Act is constitutional and are confident the Supreme Court will agree," said Dan Pfeiffer, White House communications director.

The justices will resolve conflicts among federal courts that have come to opposite conclusions about the constitutionality of the Affordable Care Act. Two of the four federal appellate courts that have ruled on the substance of the law have upheld it.

The high court agreed to hear appeals on issues tied to the multistate challenge to the law heard by the 11th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in Atlanta, the only decision that has struck down the so-called individual mandate, the requirement that almost every American purchase health insurance by 2014 or pay a fine through income tax.

At stake for seniors if the court voids the law are provisions that lower prescription drug costs and provide free preventive screenings under Medicare. So far this year, about 2.2 million Medicare recipients have saved $1.2 billion on prescriptions, and 22.6 million seniors and people with disabilities have received at least one free preventive benefit under the law, according to the Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services, which also said 500 community health centers around the country will receive $42 million through 2014 to improve care for seniors.

Among the court's options: It could declare the mandate unconstitutional but let the rest of the law stand. It could void the entire law. Or it could wait to decide the issues until after the penalty for failing to buy health insurance takes effect in 2014.

The core legal issue is whether Congress overstepped its authority to regulate interstate commerce when it passed the individual mandate. The high court also will consider whether a 19th-century law that prohibits courts from ruling on taxes before they're collected bars the current lawsuit.

The law expands health care coverage to about 32 million Americans through various means, including an expansion of Medicaid with 16 million additional adults.

Nancy LeaMond, executive vice president of AARP, said in a statement last month that the organization "supported the Affordable Care Act because it puts quality, affordable health care in reach for millions of Americans who previously couldn’t afford coverage, brings much needed relief to the spiraling cost of prescription drugs by closing the Medicare prescription drug coverage gap or 'doughnut hole' and offers many other benefits to help improve the health of all Americans."

Next: 30 federal lawsuits challenging the law have been filed. >>

The embattled act has been in the courts since six minutes after Obama used 22 pens to sign the bill into law at 11:56 a.m. on March 23, 2010. At 12:02 p.m., Bill McCollum, then attorney general of Florida, filed a federal lawsuit in Pensacola on behalf of Florida, several other states, the National Federation of Independent Business and two individuals. A total of 25 states, led by Republicans, joined in the challenge, Florida v. Department of Health and Human Services.

The Supreme Court will have the last word in a battle over the scope of government between a Democratic president and his Republican opponents.

The district court judge ruled the mandate to purchase insurance unconstitutional Jan. 31 and struck down the entire law. A three-judge panel of the 11th Circuit ruled, 2-1, on Aug. 12 that the individual mandate was unconstitutional, but said the mandate could be severed and the rest of the law could stand. The ruling directly conflicted with a ruling by the 6th Circuit upholding the law.

The federal government appealed to the Supreme Court.

The court allotted 5 1/2 hours for oral arguments, apparently a modern record, according to longtime court journalist Lyle Denniston. The court normally limits oral arguments to one hour per case. The lengthy argument time reflects the complexity of the case and the importance the justices place on the division of power between states and the national government, Denniston wrote on SCOTUSblog.com.

About 30 federal lawsuits challenging the law have been filed around the country, and controversy continues to swirl around the law. On Nov. 8, voters in Ohio approved, 2-1, a state constitutional amendment rejecting any state law requiring people to purchase insurance.

That same day, the law's supporters were encouraged when a conservative judge upheld the law. Judge Laurence H. Silberman, a Reagan judicial appointee in the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia, rejected claims that Congress overstepped its authority.

And so the Supreme Court will have the last word in a battle over the scope of government between a Democratic president and his Republican opponents. Whatever the justices decide likely will define the court led by Chief Justice John G. Roberts Jr. for the history books.

Also of interest: How the GOP plans to roll back health reform.

Marsha Mercer is a freelance writer who covers public policy issues.

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