Pharmacy director Hank Wedemeyer looks up records while filling a prescription… (John Moore / Getty Images )
Reporting from Washington — The Supreme Court justices are set to begin a third and final day of arguments on President Obama’s healthcare law Wednesday by tackling the potentially monumental question of whether to throw out other parts of the mammoth legislation if they decide to strike the requirement that all Americans get insurance.
At stake are popular consumer protections in the new law, such as the guarantee that everyone can get health insurance, even if they have a preexisting medical condition, and new protections that limit how much more insurers can charge older customers.
Few experts initially believed the arcane issue of what is called severability would play a major role in the legal battle over the law that the president signed two years ago.
But it now may be critical, as the fate of the insurance mandate appears increasingly unclear. On Tuesday, several key members of the court -- including Justice Anthony Kennedy and Chief Justice John G. Roberts, Jr. -- expressed concern that the insurance requirement may dangerously expand the scope of the federal government's power.
Later in the day Wednesday, the court is scheduled to hear arguments on the final issue before the justices -- a challenge by 26 states to a major expansion of the Medicaid program for the poor.
Why is "severability" an issue in this case?
The insurance requirement is widely viewed as crucial to other consumer protections in the law, including the guarantee that everyone can get health insurance. Experts believe that it is nearly impossible to have such a guarantee without a way to induce younger, healthier people to get covered and offset the cost of insuring older, sicker ones.
Obama administration lawyers have asked the court to throw out the insurance guarantee if the justices decide the mandate is unconstitutional.
Could any more of the law be stricken?
The court could decide to throw out the entire law, as a federal judge in Florida did last year. The 26 states challenging the mandate and a host of other critics of the law have urged the justices to do that.
But few experts believe that the court would take such a drastic step, which would entail striking many provisions that have nothing to do with the mandate, including new initiatives to boost public health, improve the quality of medical care and train more doctors and other medical professionals.
Could the court just invalidate the mandate and keep everything else?
Yes. The U.S. 11th Circuit Court of Appeals -- which is the only appellate court to strike the mandate -- decided to do that, reasoning that the mandate is so weak that getting rid of it would not have much of an effect on even the insurance provisions in the law.
Original source: What to know for Wednesday's Supreme Court healthcare deliberations