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High court upholds Obama health law by 5-4 vote



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There’s also an added safety net for all Americans, insured and uninsured. Starting in 2014, insurance companies will not be able to deny coverage for medical treatment, nor can they charge more to people with health problems. Those protections, now standard in most big employer plans, will be available to all, including people who get laid off, or leave a corporate job to launch their own small business.

Seniors also benefit from the law through better Medicare coverage for those with high prescription costs, and no copayments for preventive care. But hospitals, nursing homes, and many other service providers may struggle once the Medicare cuts used to finance the law really start to bite.

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At a glance

Hospital stocks jump after health care ruling

Stocks of hospital companies rose sharply and insurance companies fell Thursday after the Supreme Court upheld a requirement that almost all Americans carry health insurance.

The stock of Hospital Corp. of America, the largest private hospital chain in the United States, rose a little more than 7 percent. Quest Diagnostics, which runs laboratories, rose almost 3 percent.

Insurance companies were down sharply as analysts rushed to sort out the ruling. UnitedHealth Group stock fell almost 3 percent, WellPoint 6 percent and Aetna 3.6 percent.

The broader stock market was down a little more than 1 percent. The Dow Jones industrial average, which was down about 100 points before the ruling came out at 10 a.m. EDT, was down 160 points after the ruling.

Stocks of the largest drug companies in the country were down but not heavily, in line with the broader market. Stocks of medical device makers were also down about the same as the broader market.

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Illegal immigrants are not entitled to the new insurance coverage under the law, and will remain one of the biggest groups uninsured.

Obama’s law is by no means the last word on health care. Experts expect costs to keep rising, meaning that lawmakers will have to revisit the issue perhaps as early as next year, when federal budget woes will force them to confront painful options for Medicare and Medicaid, the giant federal programs that cover seniors, the disabled, and low-income people.

The health care overhaul focus will now quickly shift from Washington to state capitals. Only 14 states, plus Washington, D.C., have adopted plans to set up the new health insurance markets called for under the law. Called exchanges, the new markets are supposed to be up and running on Jan. 1, 2014. People buying coverage individually, as well as small businesses, will be able to shop for private coverage from a range of competing insurers.

Most Republican-led states, including large ones such as Texas and Florida, have been counting on the law to be overturned and have failed to do the considerable spade work needed to set up exchanges. There’s a real question about whether they can meet the deadline, and if they don’t, Washington will step in and run their exchanges for them.

In contrast to the states, health insurance companies, major employers, and big hospital systems are among the best prepared. Many of the changes called for in the law were already being demanded by employers trying to get better value for their private health insurance dollars.

"The main driver here is financial," said Dr. Toby Cosgrove, CEO of the Cleveland Clinic, which has pioneered some of the changes. "The factors driving health care reform are not new, and they are not going to go away."

The Medicaid expansion would cover an estimated 17 million people who earn too much to qualify for assistance but not enough to afford insurance. The federal and state governments share the cost, and Washington regularly imposes conditions on the states in exchange for money.

Roberts said Congress’ ability to impose those conditions has its limits. "In this case, the financial ‘inducement’ Congress has chosen is much more than ‘relatively mild encouragement’ — it is a gun to the head," he said.


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The law says the Health and Human Services Department can withhold a state’s entire Medicaid allotment if the state doesn’t comply with the health care law’s Medicaid provisions.

Even while ruling out that level of coercion, however, Roberts said nothing prevents the federal government from offering money to accomplish the expansion and withholding that money from states that don’t meet certain conditions.

"What Congress is not free to do is to penalize states that choose not to participate in that new program by taking away their existing Medicaid funding," he said.

Ginsburg said the court should have upheld the entire law as written without forcing any changes in the Medicaid provision. She said Congress’ constitutional authority to regulate interstate commerce supports the individual mandate. She warned that the legal reasoning, even though the law was upheld, could cause trouble in future cases.

"So in the end, the Affordable Health Care Act survives largely unscathed. But the court’s commerce clause and spending clause jurisprudence has been set awry. My expectation is that the setbacks will be temporary blips, not permanent obstructions," Ginsburg said in a statement she, too, read from the bench.

In the courtroom Thursday were retired Justice John Paul Stevens and the wives of Roberts, Alito, Breyer, Kennedy and Thomas..——

Associated Press writers Ricardo Alonso-Zaldivar, Charles Babington, Jessica Gresko, Jesse J. Holland and David Espo contributed to this report.

THE RULING:

The Supreme Court upheld the constitutionality of President Barack Obama’s health care law, including the most disputed part: the mandate that virtually all Americans have health insurance or pay a fine. The mandate was upheld under the federal government’s power to levy taxes.

The ruling put some limits on the law’s plan to expand the Medicaid insurance program for the poor, a joint effort of the federal government and states. It says the U.S. government cannot threaten to withhold a state’s entire Medicaid allotment if it doesn’t participate in the expansion.

Chief Justice John Roberts sided with the court’s four liberal justices — Stephen Breyer, Ruth Bader Ginsburg, Elena Kagan and Sonia Sotomayor — to form the 5-4 majority.

THE CONTEXT

The decision affects nearly every American and marks a major milepost in a century of efforts to make health care available to all. The law is President Barack Obama’s signature legislative achievement and perhaps the most polarizing issue of his re-election campaign. His Republican rival Mitt Romney and GOP lawmakers have promised to repeal Obamacare.

WHAT NOW?

The 2010 health care law will continue phasing in as planned. It’s expected to bring coverage to about 30 million uninsured people, so that more than 9 in 10 eligible Americans will be covered.

Some parts are already in effect: Young adults can stay on their parents’ insurance up to age 26. Insurers can’t deny coverage to children with health problems. Limits on how much policies will pay out to each person over a lifetime are eliminated. Hundreds of older people already are saving money through improved Medicare prescription benefits. And co-payments for preventive care for all ages have been eliminated.

WHAT’S NEXT?

Starting in 2014, almost everyone will be required to be insured or pay a fine. There are subsidies to help people who can’t afford coverage. Most employers will face fines if they don’t offer coverage for their workers. Newly created insurance markets will make it easier for individuals and small businesses to buy affordable coverage. And Medicaid will be expanded to cover more low-income people.

Insurers will be prohibited from denying coverage to people with medical problems or charging those people more. They won’t be able to charge women more, either. During the transition to 2014, a special program for people with pre-existing health problems helps these people get coverage.

An assortment of tax increases, health industry fees and Medicare cuts will help pay for the changes.

IS THE ISSUE SETTLED NOW?

Not necessarily. Although the court found it constitutional, the health care law still could be changed by Congress. Romney and Republican congressional candidates are campaigning on promises to repeal it if elected in November.

Some parts of the law are popular, but others — especially the mandate that virtually everyone have insurance coverage — are not.

Also, an estimated 26 million people will remain without health coverage once the law is fully implemented, including illegal immigrants, people who don’t sign up and elect to face the fine instead, and those who can’t afford it even with the subsidies.



Copyright 2014 The Salt Lake Tribune. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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