Court Backs Obama on Health Law

June 29, 2012


WASHINGTON—Chief Justice John Roberts joined the Supreme Court’s four liberals Thursday to uphold the linchpin of President Barack Obama’s plan to expand health coverage to nearly all Americans, a surprise conclusion to a constitutional showdown.

The ruling clears the way for the biggest revamp of America’s health-care system since the 1960s—and sets the stage for a renewed political fight over its merits.

By a 5-4 vote, the court held the law’s mandate requiring Americans to carry health insurance or pay a penalty valid under Congress’s constitutional authority to levy taxes. The financial penalty for failing to carry insurance possesses “the essential feature of any tax,” producing revenue for the government, Chief Justice Roberts wrote.

But the court handed a consolation prize to the 26 largely Republican-led states that challenged the health-care overhaul—and opened a new door to their resistance. It ruled that the federal government could not expel states from Medicaid if they refused to go along with the expanded eligibility for the federal-state health program that is part of the health-care law.

The decision, tensely awaited for months, proved a vast relief to Democrats and Mr. Obama.

Speaking at the White House, the president retold the story of a woman with cancer who had to go without insurance and said, “Because of this law, there are other Americans … who will not have to hang their fortunes on chance. These are the Americans for whom we passed this law.”

But the decision also handed Republicans a sharper message for the fall campaign: They said they would tell Americans who dislike “Obamacare” that electing GOP candidates is the only way to repeal it. What’s more, by calling the insurance penalty the legal equivalent of a tax, the court allows Republicans to accuse the president of raising taxes for some.

“This is now a time for the American people to make a choice,” said presumptive Republican presidential nominee Mitt Romney. “You can choose whether you want to have a larger and larger government.”

The ruling means that the law’s reordering of the $2.7 trillion health industry will move forward mostly as planned, with implications affecting every hospital, doctor, health insurer and drug maker in the nation. About 30 million more Americans are expected to gain coverage, although the Medicaid change could lower that.

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