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Prof.: Supreme Court’s healthcare ruling focuses on law, not politics

The U.S. Supreme Court ruled 5-4 Thursday to uphold nearly every portion of the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act.

Chief Justice John Roberts wrote the majority opinion, which said the PPACA’s most controversial part – the individual mandate – was essentially a tax. Justices also ruled that states have the option of declining to participate in an expansion of the Medicaid program without penalty. The mandate and the Medicaid expansion have been at the heart of Republican and conservative opposition to PPACA.

Matt Steffey, professor of law at Jackson’s Mississippi College School of Law, wasn’t surprised by Thursday’s ruling. He said it’s clear justices cast aside three years’ worth of emotional arguments for and against PPACA and concentrated on its legal validity.

“If you take the political rhetoric out of this and just read the statute, it’s a tax saying that people who don’t have health insurance will pay higher taxes than people who do,” Steffey said. “I always thought there was an easy way to uphold (the mandate) as a tax, and the chief justice obviously agreed. Just like the pardon issue here in Mississippi, this is right on the law.”

Joining Roberts were justices Stephen Breyer, Ruth Bader Ginsburg, Elena Kagan and Sonia Sotomayor. Dissenting justices issued a statement in which they said the mandate and the potential denial of state’s Medicaid funding for not participating in PPACA’s expansion of the program was an overreach of federal power.

Steffey said that states can opt out of the Medicaid expansion without losing their federal funding for the program was a “modest victory.” The biggest winner, Steffey said, was Pres. Obama, who made healthcare reform a big part of his campaign in 2008.

Obama won’t be the only political winner, though, Steffey said.

“Honestly, I think this plays out a little bit better for Mitt Romney,” Steffey said. “If they had struck down the law, Obama could have essentially run against the court. Now, it somewhat relieves Gov. Romney of the duty of having to put out a healthcare vision of his own. Politically, this is better for Gov. Romney than striking down the law because it’s an issue that will keep money pouring in and invigorate the base.”

The issue is far from settled. Congress can still make changes to the healthcare law, or repeal it entirely. Republicans were setting the stage for such by mid-morning Thursday.

“Only a full repeal of this overreaching law will allow Americans to receive the care that they need, from the doctors that they choose, at a cost that they can afford,” said Gregg Harper, who represents Mississippi’s Third District.

Closer to home, Lt. Gov. Tate Reeves said in a statement that the court’s ruling “does not change the fact that Obamacare raises taxes on Americans and expands the bureaucracy of our health care system.”

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