‘Cliffs Notes’ on Supreme Court Hearings

An Update from VPIRG Health Care Advocate, Cassandra Gekas

Health Care was big news last week, from the Supreme Court to the Vermont Legislature.  With all the coverage and endless political commentary, it can be hard to get a sense of what’s really going on. Here are the ‘Cliffs Notes’ to help decode the latest happenings in Vermont and Washington D.C.

The Question
The Supreme Court heard three days of testimony on the constitutionality of the Affordable Care Act (ACA), the landmark health reform signed into law by President Obama in March 2010. If you were near a TV, radio, or newspaper, the coverage was hard to miss. Last week’s hearings were some of the longest in the Court’s history.  On the docket were four big questions for the Court to consider, the most important of which were: 

  1. Is the individual mandate constitutional? The mandate would require most Americans to purchase health insurance in 2014 or pay a penalty.
  2. Is the individual mandate severable? Should the entire law be thrown out if the Supreme Court finds the individual mandate unconstitutional?

Even if the Supreme Court strikes down the individual mandate, Vermonters will be in much better shape than millions of Americans living in other states. That’s because Vermont already has in place two consumer protections tied to the individual mandate: A health insurer cannot 1) refuse to sell you coverage because you have a pre-existing condition, or 2) charge you more because you’re sick or over a certain age.

But the question of severability is a bigger concern for us. If the Court were to strike down the entire law, Vermont would lose out on millions of dollars in federal funds that are central to making our vision for Green Mountain Care a reality.  Without federal support, we’d face a greater challenge in coming up with money to re-build our health care infrastructure, in addition to the costs of coverage.

While we wait for a decision from the Court, Vermont is moving forward with setting up a health benefit exchange for 2014. This will allow us to make the most of the federal dollars on the table and ensure the greatest benefit to the thousands of Vermonters struggling with the high cost of premiums. Legislators are creating the exchange with the state’s long-term goals in mind so that we’ll be on track for our transition to Green Mountain Care.

Like many of you, I wish the ACA had gone further, but the truth is it was a monumental achievement. Once fully implemented, the law will bring affordable coverage to 30 million previously uninsured Americans.  It’s built on strong consumer protections and puts an end to many of the worst insurance company abuses. And over the next few years, the ACA will help Vermont build the foundation and infrastructure we need to finally bring high-quality, affordable health care to every Vermonter. In short, there’s a lot at stake.

So, will Vermont’s health reform efforts fall apart if the law is struck down?
No, but a very bad decision from the Supreme Court could make things much harder.

VPIRG was a strong supporter of the federal overhaul and we continue to play a leading role in Vermont’s health reform efforts.   While we’re watching the deliberations in Washington closely, we remain vigilant in Vermont, making sure that your health and financial security is protected every step of the way. Regardless of the outcome in the Supreme Court, we are committed to moving forward on Green Mountain Care.
The Decision
The Supreme Court is expected to issue their decision in June or July. While many are optimistic that the law will be upheld in its entirety, it’s honestly hard to tell.  And given the recent track record of the Court – remember Citizens United? – there’s cause for concern.

Here in Vermont
Meanwhile, VPIRG continues to work closely with state leaders on our own health reform goals. In fact, last week brought two key victories: S.200, a bill that would require insurance companies to report publicly on the claims that they deny, passed the Senate unanimously and is on its way to the House.  And on Monday, the Senate Health and Welfare Committee voted to advance H.559, which lays out the design for Vermont’s health benefit exchange.  H.559 has three more committee stops, before making its way to the Senate floor by April 10th. 

So we’re making progress. With each passing day, we get closer to a common sense health care system in Vermont – one that will truly cover every Vermonter at an affordable price. That vision is what keeps me coming back to the State House every morning.  With your help, we’ll keep pressing to make sure that every Vermonter gets the care they need at a price they can afford.

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