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Examining the Affordable Care Act

At a panel discussion in Dockser Hall on Tuesday, a trio of Northeastern professors addressed the constitutional challenges and political implications of the Supreme Court hearing arguments this week on the Affordable Care Act. Photo by Dominick Reuter.

Regardless of the U.S. Supreme Court’s ruling on President Obama’s signature health-care legislation — the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act — the verdict will almost certainly send seismic shocks through the 2012 presidential campaign.

“If we gave the ‘Jeopardy!’ computer Watson all the precedent and asked him this legal question, there’s no doubt he would say the law is constitutional,” said Wendy Parmet, a Matthews Distinguished University Professor in the Northeastern University School of Law. “But in some cases,” she cautioned, “the Supreme Court doesn’t do what you think it will do according to precedent, which has especially been the case in [Chief Justice John] Roberts’ court.”

Parmet addressed more than 100 students, faculty and staff who filled 250 Dockser Hall on Tuesday afternoon for a panel discussion on the constitutional challenges and political implications of the Affordable Care Act.

The discussion was hosted by the Law School’s Program on Health Policy and Law and held as the Supreme Court was wrapping up its second day of deliberations on the controversial health care legislation passed in 2010. Michael Tolley, an associate professor of political science, and Kristin Madison, a professor of law and health sciences, were also on the panel.

The key issue in the Supreme Court case hinges on the individual mandate — the portion of the law that requires Americans to purchase health insurance or face a penalty. “It’s probably the only part of the act that anybody on either side of the picket line knows anything about,” Parmet said.

But the panel delved deeper into the case, discussing the implications of other issues before the court, including Medicaid and the Anti-Injunction Act, an 1867 law that could prevent the court from ruling on the case for several years.

Prior to the 2010 passage of Obama’s Affordable Care Act, very little had been done at the federal level to extend health-care coverage since the creation of Medicare and Medicaid in the 1960s.

The Obama health-care law, Madison said, has already caused a sharp reduction in uninsured Americans by allowing young people to remain on their parents’ insurance through the age of 26.

But many people dislike the Affordable Care Act. According to a CBS News/New York Times poll conducted from March 21-25, 47 percent of Americans disapprove of the law, including 30 percent who strongly disapprove. Thirty-six percent of those polled said they support the law either somewhat or strongly.

One thing is for sure: The Supreme Court’s decision on the health-care law, which is expected in June, is poised to make a close presidential election even more contentious.

“If the Supreme Court were to strike down the individual mandate, the Republican Party would almost certainly get a boost,” Tolley said. “If the law is upheld, it could very well be construed to produce a bump or bounce for Democrats and the president. Certainly a favorable decision could be seen to provide an advantage to President Obama going into the November election.”

The Supreme Court is scheduled to complete its final day of hearings on the Affordable Care Act today, which will mark the longest consideration of a single case since Bush v. Gore resolved the 2000 presidential election.