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News Media Turn to Faculty Experts to Explain Supreme Court Ruling on Health Care

July 03, 2012

When the U.S. Supreme Court upheld the constitutionality of President Obama’s controversial health care overhaul on June 28, the news media turned to faculty experts to help the public absorb the complex story.

Professor Robert Field, who was present when the Supreme Court heard arguments concerning the insurance mandate that was a key feature of the Affordable Care Act, was interviewed on the last 20 minutes of Radio Times, a program on Philadelphia’s National Public Radio affiliate WHYY, moments after the ruling was announced on June 28.

The 5-4 ruling held that the penalties the law can impose on those who decline to obtain insurance fall well within Congress’ power to levy taxes, Field said.

“That’s Congress taking charge and saying ‘This is how we’re going to resolve the issue of the uninsured in America,’” Field told Radio Times host Marty Moss-Coane.

Field said he was surprised by the ruling, based on arguments the court heard in March, which the professor covered for The Philadelphia Inquirer.

“I didn’t think the mandate would survive, after having watched the questioning at the court the day it was discussed,” Field said, calling Chief Justice John Roberts’ opinion with the majority “extremely significant.”

“He really was the swing vote,” Field said, speculating that Roberts may have sought to dispel criticism the court has faced for making politically charged rulings, such as in the Citizens United case.

For all the debate surrounding the Affordable Care Act, Field noted that the controversial insurance mandate originated as a conservative solution for the nation’s health care woes and received support from prominent Republicans from the 1970s until Obama promoted it.

“The mandate dates back to Richard Nixon,” Field said. “We might have had it in 1973 if it hadn’t been for Watergate.”

Professor Lisa McElroy discussed the decision on AirTalk, a program on Southern California’s National Public Radio affiliate KPCC.  McElroy said Robert’s opinion reaffirms the legitimacy, relevancy and independence of the court in a time when many Americans perceived it as becoming politically biased.

McElroy also applauded U.S. Solicitor General Donald Verrilli, who argued that the Affordable Care Act was valid under Congress’ tax power, the argument the court ultimately adopted.  Verrilli, who had been mocked in various media outlets for appearing unprepared for oral arguments before the court, ultimately proved that it is not only oral arguments that affect a decision but also the quality of an advocate’s written submission, McElroy said.

One of the most important outcomes of the decision was that it “shows everyone in America how relevant the Supreme Court is to their daily lives,” McElroy said.

McElroy also provided an overview of the opinion as a guest speaker on Oregon Public Radio’s Think Out Loud program on July 2. 

Field was quoted in an ABC News online article and a U.S. News and World Report story, in which he noted that the court’s refusal to expand Congress’ power with regard to the law’s Medicaid provision offered a balm to conservatives.

“Congress can expand Medicaid and can offer states a carrot to expand it, but they cannot follow the carrot with a stick that would take away their entire Medicaid programs if they don't agree to the expansion,” Field explained.

In that way, cash-strapped states like California will see some financial benefit, at least in the short term, Field said in an interview with KFBK Radio in Sacramento.

“In the short term,” Field said, “the federal government will pay 100 percent of the added (Medicaid expansion) cost, what that means is that millions of federal dollars come into the state to support hospitals and physicians.”

Before the court announced its decision, Field speculated about the ruling’s potential impact on Pennsylvania in the Daily News and the Pittsburgh Tribune.