U.S. Supreme Court to take up health care law

The U.S. Supreme Court today begins an extraordinary three days of legal examination of the federal health care law prompted by a challenge brought by 26 states, including Washington.

Justices plan to hold six hours of arguments on the 2-year-old law and is expected to issue a ruling this summer, plenty of time for their decision to be injected into the presidential election as well as congressional and gubernatorial contests in this state and across the nation.

The Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act, signed in March 2010, aims to provide health insurance to more than 30 million previously uninsured Americans. But opponents, including Republicans in Congress who fought the bill, argue the law is unconstitutional.

The high court will consider claims against the federal law filed by the states and a parallel petition filed by the National Federation of Independent Businesses.

At the core of the fight is the law’s mandate that every American buy government-approved health care starting in 2014 or pay a fine. Opponents say it exceeds Congress’ powers under the Constitution but supporters argue the federal government can impose such a rule.

The Supreme Court is scheduled to hear two hours of arguments Tuesday on this question.

Washington Republican Attorney General Rob McKenna joined the multi-state lawsuit in March 2010 over the objections of Democratic Gov. Chris Gregoire and the Democratic leaders of the Legislature.

He’s focused his opposition on the illegality of the mandate for individuals to buy insurance.

“Access to affordable, quality health care can be expanded without cutting constitutional corners,” he said in a statement issued in November when the high court agreed to hear the case. “Health care reform is far too important to rest on an unconstitutional foundation.”

McKenna will not be among the team of lawyers arguing the case this week nor will he be attending, spokesman Dan Sytman said Friday.

Gregoire and Democratic lawmakers who support the health care overhaul said McKenna overstepped when he filed the suit without telling them.

“I completely disagree with the attorney general’s decision and he does not represent me,” Gregoire said two years ago. “I have made it clear to the attorney general that I will actively oppose this lawsuit if it moves forward.”

In June 2010, Gregoire and the Democratic governors of Michigan, Pennsylvania and Colorado jointly filed a motion to become a party to the federal lawsuit. Gregoire filed two additional motions of her own.

Meanwhile, on Friday, Gregoire signed a new law prompted by the federal overhaul which will provide residents with information on available health insurance plans and their costs. The information will be online starting in 2013.

Gregoire used the bill signing ceremony to trumpet the value of the controversial federal law.

“We will no longer have 1 million Washingtonians with no health care insurance at all. No longer will millions have inadequate insurance that does little when they most need it,” Gregoire said. “No longer will Washingtonians be afraid to change jobs, have a baby, or make other life changes because they fear what life would be like if they suddenly lose coverage.”

The Supreme Court’s decision is certain to become fodder in the race for governor in Washington as McKenna is battling former Democratic Congressman Jay Inslee, who voted for the health care law.

In September, Inslee held a news conference outside the Seattle office of the attorney general to criticize McKenna for joining the lawsuit. Inslee said if the suit is successful it would torpedo the entire law, which would hurt millions of people in Washington and across the country.

McKenna responded, saying there are beneficial parts of the law that should be retained while the unconstitutional portions, such as the mandate, should be eliminated.

Jerry Cornfield: 360-352-8623; jcornfield@heraldnet.com.

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