Washington—The United States Supreme Court, in what is expected to be a historic landmark case that will define healthcare in the United States for the foreseeable future, began arguments this week on the constitutionality of the new federal health care act passed by Congress and signed into law by President Barack Obama in 2010.
In an unusual step signaling the historic importance of the case, the court announced it would take three days to hear arguments from both sides, starting with a hearing on whether the mandate to require health insurance for all citizens is a tax under the law.
Whatever the court does, its decisions are almost certain to be campaign fodder for both Republican opponents of the act and Democratic proponents. A ruling is expected by July.
With some reservations, the union community has enthusiastically endorsed the act. It is considered a major achievement, even though it fell short of what many unions would have preferred.
AFL-CIO President Richard Trumka calls it a first step toward even more comprehensive federal health care program that the AFL-CIO will continue to work for in years to come. Unions have been working for broader health care coverage for all Americans for more than fifty years, when President Harry Truman first proposed it after World War II.
Republican Attorney Generals in 23 states have challenged the constitutionality of the program. Attorney General Rich Koster of Missouri is the only Democrat to have joined the challenge.
Protests on both sides of the issue were bursting this week like cherry blossoms throughout the nation’s capital. Washington veterans say the 136 “friend of the court” briefs filed with the court on both sides of the issue is probably unprecedented in the nation’s history.
If the high court should reject the program, or even restrict it by ruling against its provision to require everybody to enroll in a health care program, it is likely to reinforce arguments against the program by Republican presidential candidates and GOP congressional candidates in the November election.
Democrats would probably react with caution, despite renewed efforts on the part of health care reformers, including unions. Fervent supporters will want to continue fighting. While others will likely be relieved that the volatile issue has been taken, even temporarily, off the political table.
Vice President Joe Biden said last week that rejection would affect millions of Americans who have already benefited from the new program, including several million young adults up to age 26 who have gained insurance coverage from their parents policies.
“Repealing Obamacare would mean telling women that they should be charged up to 50 percent more for coverage just for being women. Families with sick kids could once again be denied coverage because of an arbitrary "pre-existing condition" label. Seniors could lose hundreds of dollars a year on the prescription drugs they need to stay healthy.
“And millions of Americans would once again have to worry about going bankrupt if they got sick, because before Obamacare, insurance companies were allowed to place lifetime caps on coverage, saying: "We'll only take care of you up to a point."
Still, the program remains unpopular with a majority of voters, according to public opinion polls, a major fault of the White House and Congressional Democrats to sell its benefits in the face of a sustained Republican propaganda campaign against it.
The White House and congressional Democrats, with help from unions and other groups in the Democratic coalition, have recently begun a massive grassroots campaign to highlight benefits of the program and sway pubic opinion.
If the court should accept the Obama administration’s arguments, it will reinforce arguments by Democrats that it is clearly authorized by legal precedent. But Republicans are not likely to back off.
They have been fighting Social Security and the National Labor Relations Act giving workers the right to unionize ever since Franklin D. Roosevelt got them passed in the 1930s. They continue to wage war on Medicare, 45 years after it was passed in the 1960s.
Just last week, the Republican chairman of the House budget committee proposed a new plan to privatize Medicare.