Next week the U.S. Supreme Court will hear 6-1/2 hours of oral arguments concerning the challenges to the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act (PPACA). This is the most time the high Court has devoted to oral arguments since the 1966 challenge to the Voting Rights Act. Virtually all attention has been on the central question – whether Congress exceeded its Constitutional authority by requiring virtually all Americans to obtain health coverage. Yet, that is only one of four questions the Court will consider. The other three have received scant attention. And the answer to one of them could have far-ranging consequences for millions of Americans whose coverage is provided by their employers.
The threshold question is a procedural one: whether it is premature for the Court to even consider the case since the PPACA tax/penalty for not obtaining health coverage will not be imposed until 2015, when Americans who fail to obtain coverage in the previous year file their income tax returns. Another question invokes the Constitution’s “Spending Clause” to determine if the Federal funds available to pay for PPACA’s expansion of Medicaid impermissibly coerces – rather than just encourages – the States to comply with the Medicaid provisions. Unexpected decisions on either of these two questions are “wild cards” that could leave the viability of the law in doubt.
The question receiving greatest media scrutiny is whether the Constitution’s “Commerce Clause,” from which Congress derives authority to regulate interstate activity, allows the federal government to require Americans to purchase health coverage. In essence, is declining to obtain health insurance (even though one will still presumably obtain health services) “activity” or “inactivity?”