Peninsula residents disappointed, elated by health law ruling
Keith Thorpe/Peninsula Daily News
Supporters of the Affordable Health Care Act march in front of the Landing Mall in Port Angeles Thursday to celebrate the Supreme Court decision upholding the act. Washington Attorney General Rob McKenna, who opposed the act, maintains a satellite office at the mall.
By Paul Gottlieb
Peninsula Daily News
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Kaj Ahlburg, 52, was on the losing side of the seminal 5-4 decision that upheld the constitutionality of the main part of the law known by critics as “Obamacare.”
The law mandates that by 2014, about 30 million uninsured Americans, or about 9 in 10, must have health insurance or pay a penalty tax of $95 that increases to $695 in 2016.
“I believe the federal government should not have the power to make us buy health insurance or any other product,” Ahlburg said Thursday, adding he felt “disappointment.” “It's not a complete shock, but certainly disappointment,” he said.
“I don't believe we should be forced to do something simply because they want us to subsidize the cost for others.”
He called the decision “an unexpected exercise of judicial activism.”
Many observers expressed surprise that conservative Chief Justice John Roberts joined the liberals on the high court to swing the majority.
Reactions to the ruling ranged from muted to ebullient among those in the health care and indigent-services fields in Clallam and Jefferson counties.
“There are so many unanswered questions at this point,” said retired pathologist Dr. Marc Mauney, president of the board of commissioners of Jefferson Healthcare.
The ruling was the talk of Olympic Medical Center, said Jeana Hutton of Port Angeles, a registered nurse at OMC and an executive board member of Service Employees International Union Local 1199NW, which represents more than 300 hospital workers.
“I have heard only grand relief,” Hutton said, adding she was “elated.”
For Ahlburg's part, he said he favors “bare-bones” catastrophic health insurance coverage rather than having to buy insurance that in Washington state must cover 40 to 45 medical conditions.
After Congress approved the Affordable Care Act in 2010, Ahlburg felt so certain the law was unconstitutional that he considered hiring legal representation to challenge it himself.
Then he called the legal counsel who was representing the National Federation of Independent Businesses and the 26 states, including Washington, that lost their bid Thursday to overturn the act.
Ahlburg said he “firmly” expects Republican presidential hopeful Mitt Romney to defeat Obama in November and to sign a congressional repeal of the law early next year.
“I hope the political process will do what the Supreme Court did not do today — get rid of this law and get real reform that works, and get a majority of people behind it,” he said.
Will he buy insurance for himself, his wife, Laura, and their 8- and 11-year-old boys if the law is not overturned?
“I will have to look at that at the time,” he said.
Washington, D.C., lawyer Gregory Katsas, who argued part of the case before the Supreme Court, said in a telephone interview that the other individuals who challenged the law were from Florida, West Virginia and New York.
Katsas said he was “still slogging” through the 193-page Supreme Court opinion and dissents Thursday afternoon, East Coast time.
“On balance, I'm obviously disappointed,” he said.
But Olympic Medical Center Chief Executive Officer Eric Lewis called the ruling “a start” toward overall health care reform, with pluses that could include extending coverage to 6,000 to 7,000 of the county's approximately 10,000 uninsured residents.
Uncompensated care to uninsured individuals treated at OMC totaled $9.4 million in 2011, Lewis said.
“It's a big positive for those individuals and OMC because uncompensated care is growing at 15 to 20 percent a year and was really unsustainable for us to continue to afford,” he said.
On the other hand, OMC's reimbursement for federally funded Medicare patients — senior citizens — will be cut by $26 million over 10 years to help pay to cover the uninsured, he said.
Medicare proceeds account for 57 percent of the hospital's gross revenue, Lewis said.
And state-run Medicaid, which serves low-income patients, will have to be expanded at a time when OMC is reimbursed for
53 percent of the program's costs, Lewis said.
The ruling “needs to be the beginning of health care reform,” Lewis added.
“We have to control costs and improve the outcomes.”
Janet Anderson is interim director of Olympic Community Action Programs, or OlyCAP, which provides services to low-income residents of Clallam and Jefferson counties.
The ruling is “absolutely huge,” she said.
“Health care is one of the more dramatic gaps we see when people come in for help,” Anderson said.
With the ruling, “we'll see more people able to get care,” she said.
Jefferson Healthcare CEO Mike Glenn did not return calls for comment Thursday.
“We've tried to position the hospital in such a way that our goals are to remain financially solvent,” said Jefferson Healthcare commissioner Mauney.
As for the presently uninsured, “our charity care is quite liberal,” he added.
“We're already providing care to those folks.”
It's possible that as a result of Thursday's Supreme Court decision, fewer people will visit the Jefferson Healthcare emergency room and “get into the clinic system,” Mauney added.
“That depends how the state funds this,” he said.
Senior Staff Writer Paul Gottlieb can be reached at 360-452-2345, ext. 5060, or at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Last modified: June 28. 2012 5:40PM