By Raju Chebium
Alabama's Republican members of Congress vowed to repeal the Democratic health care reform law that won the Supreme Court's blessing Thursday, while the state's lone Democratic House member praised the ruling.
The 5-4 decision was a blow to Alabama and 25 other states that had sued on grounds that the law's "individual mandate" provision, which requires everyone to carry health insurance or pay fines beginning in 2014, is unconstitutional.
"I respect the Supreme Court decision, however I am deeply disappointed by the outcome of this case," said Rep. Martha Roby, R-Montgomery. "There has never been a disagreement that health care costs are too high and that all Americans don't have access to it. What we disagreed with is how we get there."
Like other Republicans, she vowed to vote for a measure the House plans to take up on July 11 that would repeal the 2010 law and replace it with legislation to cap medical malpractice payments, allow people to shop for cheaper, out-of-state insurance policies and make other changes.
Repealing and replacing the law -- the rallying cry for all Republicans after the ruling -- won't be easy. Democrats in charge of the Senate would almost certainly refuse to even bring the legislation up for a vote -- as it did when the House passed a repeal measure earlier this year -- and President Barack Obama would veto it.
Roby and other Republicans vowed to press on regardless. "We will do our work in the House and then the American people can hold the Senate and the president accountable," she said.
Rep. Terri Sewell, D-Birmingham, praised the ruling as a "monumental victory" for Americans. She said the ruling ensures that 36,000 children with pre-existing health conditions in her district can't be denied coverage, and 109,000 adults and children can continue to receive preventive care.
"Today's ruling confirms what I have always believed, that health care in America should be a right and not a privilege," Sewell said.
The individual mandate is central to the Obama administration's effort to cover about 30 million uninsured people, including more than 500,000 in Alabama. The idea is that increasing the number of insured Americans will lower premiums.
The administration has long argued that the mandate is valid under the Constitution's Commerce Clause. In a ruling written by Chief Justice John Roberts, the court rejected that argument but declared the mandate constitutional under Congress' broad authority to levy taxes.
"The Affordable Care Act's requirement that certain individuals pay a financial penalty for not obtaining health insurance may reasonably be characterized as a tax," Roberts wrote. "Because the Constitution permits such a tax, it is not our role to forbid it, or to pass upon its wisdom or fairness."
Roberts, a conservative appointed by President George W. Bush, surprised Republicans by providing the swing vote upholding the health-care law. The four liberal justices -- Ruth Bader Ginsburg, Sonia Sotomayor, Stephen Breyer and Elena Kagan -- sided with him.
Justices Anthony Kennedy, Clarence Thomas, Samuel Alito and Antonin Scalia dissented.
Kennedy, who was expected to be the swing vote, denounced the ruling from the bench.
"The majority rewrites the statute Congress wrote," he said. "What Congress called a penalty, the court calls a tax The Affordable Care Act now must operate as the court has revised it, not as Congress designed it."
Gov. Robert Bentley criticized the ruling and called the law "the single worst piece of legislation to come out of Congress."
"The law must be repealed," Bentley said. "People need more choices, not fewer choices. Bigger government is not the answer."
Other Alabama Republicans also denounced the ruling and zeroed in on the majority's reclassification of the penalty as a tax.
"For the court to affirm the mandate portion of the law, it was forced to reject the president's and the then-majority Democratic Congress' contention that the mandate was not a tax," said Sen. Jeff Sessions of Mobile. "The big spenders have once again succeeded in surreptitiously imposing a tax on the American people while pretending they are not."
Sen. Richard Shelby of Tuscaloosa said the law is "terrible policy" and deserves to be repealed.
"The court stated in its ruling what the Obama administration would not admit in its sales pitch to the American people: Obamacare's individual mandate creates yet another tax increase," he said. "We must now redouble our efforts to repeal this job-killing tax hike."
Significantly for Alabama, the court also barred the federal government from withholding all Medicaid money from states that refuse to go along with a provision in the law that expands eligibility for Medicaid, the federal-state insurance program for low-income and disabled people.
Alabama officials say they would have to find $700 million over a decade to pay their share of the expansion. Almost 1 million Alabamians are covered by Medicaid.
Under the health care law as passed, about 500,000 people would be added to the rolls beginning in 2014.
The federal government would cover the costs of covering all additional enrollees between 2014 and 2020. The federal share would drop to 90 percent by 2020 and remain at that level.