By Talib I. Karim STAFF WRITER SPECIAL TO THE NNPA FROM THE WASHINGTON INFORMER
This week, the U.S. Supreme Court convened hearings to settle the question once and for all of whether the historic health reform law, the Patient Protection and Affordable Care
“Obamacare” by Republicans is constitutional. Supreme Court experts suggest that this case is the most significant before the Court in more than 50 years - rivaling Brown v. Board of Education - a landmark case that led to the end of legalized segregation.
Given the magnitude of the case, the Supreme Court had set aside six hours of arguments over a three day
period which began March 26 through Wednesday - more time given to any case since 1966. The justices have also postponed half of their normal monthly case load to clear way for the Court to issue a decision by as early as July. The case will have a significant impact on the upcoming election in November. If the Court strikes down the Affordable Care Act, it could be considered a win by Republicans who seek to unseat President Obama and take over both houses of Congress. However, if the Court allows the law to stand in whole, or in part, the president could declare his signature legislative achieve- ment to date, a victory. A recent report by Brown University Professor Michael Tesler makes the point what many, includ- ing former President Jimmy Carter, have long stated: much of the oppo- sition to Obama's initiatives like health reform has less to do with policy than with race. While Obama himself has attempted to set aside the racial dimensions of debates over health care and even the tragic killing of Trayvon Martin, Tesler’s study is clear. “African Americans were about 20 points more supportive of the Barack Obama [health] plan than they were of Bill Clinton’s plan,” said Tesler during an interview with National Public Radio’s Michel Martin. Yet, the divide isn’t simply an issue between African Americans and European
Democrats or Republicans, Tesler said. Instead, Tesler contends that health and other Obama policies are likely to be supported by people of all races who have liberal attitudes about race.
Four Separate Hearings
The reason behind the unprece- dented three-day, six hours of oral arguments before the Supreme Court is rooted in the four separate issues being considered. Each issue is considered so unique, that the Supreme Court has afforded sepa- rate hearings for each. On Day One, lawyers were asked to debate whether the Supreme Court has the power to decide on the merits of the Affordable Care Act's penalty for failure to get health insurance - con- sidered a tax by some - since the fines and other sanctions don't kick in until 2015. If the Court rules that the penalty for not getting health insurance is a tax then it could punt and put off the issue for three more years, after the presidential elec-
4 CHICAGO DEFENDER / APRIL 4-10, 2012
Supreme court takes up ‘Obamacare’
“[U]ninsured persons experience signifi- cant hardship that has a profound cumu- lative impact on our nation …These bur- dens are disproportionately borne by racial and ethnic minorities, lower-income persons … For many individuals, being uninsured is not a choice, but rather is a consequence that is imposed on them due to circumstances largely beyond their control.”
—NAACP Legal Defense Fund tions. On Day Two, the Court requested
arguments on whether the health law's individual mandate itself is constitutional under the Commerce Clause, which allows the federal government to regulate interstate activity.
The final day of arguments focused on two questions, the first: whether the health reform law can stand even if the Court declares the individual mandate unconstitution- al; the second whether the Affordable Care Act's expansion of Medicaid to cover everyone under 133 percent of the federal poverty line [individuals with yearly earn- ings of about $14,000] by 2014 is too onerous. The federal govern- ment argues that Medicaid is a vol- untary grant program, thus states can opt-out if they object to the expanded coverage. People of Color, Poor Caught in the Middle
While health reform was being debated by lawyers before the Supreme Court, the nation’s top African-American physicians - members of the National Medical Association (NMA) - along with state legislators from across the country lobbied federal officials to ensure people of color are able to get their fair share of benefits. NMA President, Dr. Cedric Bright, said people of color may likely feel the brunt of any decision. On the one hand, if the law stays intact, out of those unable or unwill- ing to get health insurance as man- dated, Bright acknowledges that African Americans in particular may be those disproportionately required to pay the-lack-of-insur- ance fine [at least $695 per year by 2016]. Bright argues, that even this
modest sum is a lot for “… folk with only a few dollars a month left over in their pockets.” Bright said, “I believe an ounce of prevention is much better than a pound of cure.” He also said that the mandate is a small cost for benefits provided by health reform: billions to build com- munity health centers, funding to address ethnic health disparities, and increased minority participation in clinical trials.
Another historic dimension of this case is the record number of legal filings [at least 170, including more than 120 “friend-of-the-court” or amicus briefs]. These briefs, or writ- ten legal arguments, are known to have great weight on the Court's decisions, so much so that often jus- tices quote directly from these sub- missions in writing their own deci- sions.
One such brief was filed by a coalition led by the NAACP Legal Defense Fund under the lead signa- ture of John Payton who served as the organization's president until his death on March 22, days before the Supreme Court hearing. In their brief, the legendary civil rights attorney and his colleagues write, “[U]ninsured persons experience significant hardship that has a pro- found cumulative impact on our nation …These burdens are dispro- portionately borne by racial and eth- nic minorities, lower-income per- sons … For many individuals, being uninsured is not a choice, but rather is a consequence that is imposed on them due to circumstances largely beyond their control.”
For the nation, and the tens of millions who benefit from the health reform law, eyes are likely to stay glued on the Supreme Court until its ruling this summer.
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