Justices preview bigger issues of health care case

WASHINGTON (AP) — The big thing on the first day was what didn't happen. No justice endorsed the idea that it's too soon for the Supreme Court to take on the health care law.

Seeming to dismiss the argument that an arcane 19th century law might prevent them from jumping into the bigger issues, the justices turned to firing off questions that previewed their complaints about both sides in the larger case unfolding Tuesday and Wednesday.

Questioning attorneys for the Obama administration and its challengers Monday, the justices wanted to know:

— Is the government trying to have it both ways? "Today you are arguing that the penalty is not a tax. Tomorrow you are going to be back and you will be arguing that the penalty is a tax," Justice Samuel Alito said to Solicitor General Donald Verrilli.

— Why are 26 states suing over a health insurance requirement that applies to people, not state governments? The states argue that the law will draw more people into the Medicaid program, which states help pay for.

— Why would states complain that the law encourages more poor people to sign up for Medicaid than they're already entitled to? "That does seem odd," said Justice Elena Kagan. "I mean, presumably the state wants to cover people whom it has declared eligible for this benefit."

Attorney Gregory G. Katsas responded that if all those additional people sign up, it would cost the state of Florida alone $500 million to $600 million per year.

That doesn't count others who will sign up because the law expands eligibility for Medicaid. Those costs are to be fully covered by the federal government for the first three years, with the states later picking up 10 percent of the cost.

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