By Mark Sherman
WASHINGTON — The Supreme Court on Thursday upheld the individual insurance requirement at the heart of President Barack Obama’s historic health care overhaul.
The narrow 5-4 ruling was a victory for Obama but also will serve as a rallying issue for Republicans calling for repeal of the Affordable Care Act passed by Democrats in 2010.
An administration official described the White House reaction as elation, while GOP opponents criticized the high court’s reasoning and promised an immediate repeal effort.
“Today’s decision was a victory for people all over this country whose lives are more secure because of this law,” Obama said in a televised White House statement.
The decision means the huge overhaul, still only partly in effect, will proceed and pick up momentum over the next several years, affecting the way that countless Americans receive and pay for their personal medical care. The ruling also hands Obama a campaign-season victory in rejecting arguments that Congress went too far in requiring most Americans to have health insurance or pay a penalty.
Chief Justice John Roberts announced the court’s judgment that allows the law to go forward with its aim of covering more than 30 million uninsured Americans.
The justices rejected two of the administration’s three arguments in support of the insurance requirement. But the court said the mandate can be construed as a tax. “Because the Constitution permits such a tax, it is not our role to forbid it, or to pass upon its wisdom or fairness,” Roberts said.
The court found problems with the law’s expansion of Medicaid, but even there said the expansion could proceed as long as the federal government does not threaten to withhold states’ entire Medicaid allotment if they don’t take part in the law’s extension.
The court’s four liberal justices, Stephen Breyer, Ruth Bader Ginsburg, Elena Kagan and Sonia Sotomayor, joined Roberts in the outcome.
Justices Samuel Alito, Anthony Kennedy, Antonin Scalia and Clarence Thomas dissented.
“The act before us here exceeds federal power both in mandating the purchase of health insurance and in denying non-consenting states all Medicaid funding,” the dissenters said in a joint statement.
The high court’s ruling Thursday to uphold the overhaul put an end to what had been one of the biggest unknowns in the presidential race.
Obama, speaking from the East Room Thursday afternoon in the White House where he signed the health care bill into law more than two years ago, sought to tamp down the political implications of the court’s ruling. The decision, he said, was about upholding the fundamental principle that no one in America should fall into financial ruin because of illness.
“Whatever the politics, today’s decision was a victory for people all over this country whose lives will be more secure because of this law and the Supreme Court’s decision to uphold it,” he said.
Obama said that mandate was essential to making the nation’s health insurance system workable and affordable.
“That’s why even though I knew it wouldn’t be politically popular, and resisted the idea when I ran for this office, we ultimately included a provision in the Affordable Care Act that people who can afford to buy health insurance should take the responsibility to do so,” he said. “In fact, this idea has enjoyed support from members of both parties, including the current Republican nominee for president.”