(ABC News)In a landmark ruling with wide-ranging implications, the Supreme Court today upheld the so-called individual mandate requiring Americans to buy health insurance or pay a penalty, the key part of President Obama's signature health care law.
The court ruled that the mandate is unconstitutional under the Constitution's commerce clause, but it can stay as part of Congress's power under a taxing clause. The court said that the government will be allowed to tax people for not having health insurance.
"The Affordable Care Act's requirement that certain individuals pay a financial penalty for not obtaining health insurance may reasonably be characterized as a tax," Chief Justice John Roberts wrote in the ruling. "Because the Constitution permits such a tax, it is not our role to forbid it, or to pass upon its wisdom or fairness."
The ruling is a victory for the Obama administration and a defeat for Republicans, who had anticipated that at least some of the law would be struck down. But it also means the debate will continue.
"It actually settles nothing. By shifting the debate to the tax arena, and with a four-justice dissent, the decision guarantees only that the broader fight over a suitable national health policy will continue," said Richard Saltman, a professor at the Rollins School of Public Health, Emory University. "In effect, the court decided this was too hot to handle. The focus will (has already) shift back to the political arena, where a deeply divided electorate will have to decide which policy path they want the country to pursue."
The court's ruling upholding the main part of Obama's law means that people must buy health insurance or pay a tax up to several thousand dollars a year. It also means that other popular provisions of the law will stay, including:
-- If you are under 26, you can get health insurance from the plan your parents use. -- If you're on Medicare, you can get free mammograms. -- If you have what's called a pre-existing condition, you can get health insurance. -- Insurance companies can't deny you coverage even if you get sick or make a mistake on your health insurance application.
The vote from the high court was five to four. Roberts, who was appointed by George W. Bush, joined the more liberal four justices in upholding the mandate. Justice Anthony Kennedy was thought to be the swing vote, but he sided with the conservative bloc.
"Our precedent demonstrates that Congress had the power to impose the exaction in section 5000 A under the taxing power and that section 5000 a need not be read to do more than impose a tax," Roberts wrote.
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