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NJ at ‘Crossroads’ While Waiting Ruling on Healthcare Reform

As U.S. Supreme Court hears arguments, local advocates gather to celebrate anniversary of Affordable Care Act.

As any parent knows, age 2 can be tough, and advocates for healthcare reform are finding out just how tough the “terrible twos” can be.

With the Supreme Court appearing split on the fate of the overhaul, grassroots advocates nonetheless turned out this week to celebrate the two-year anniversary of the federal Affordable Care Act at a restaurant in the Valley Arts District.

The television above the bar at Hat City Kitchen tuned to the nightly news recap of three days of historic Supreme Court arguments on the most wide-reaching and controversial aspect, requiring most people to buy basic insurance, the irony not lost on guests of the Citizen Action Education Fund.

They understood the fight had not ended when President Obama signed the bill into law on March 23, 2010. “This is not a surprise,” observed Phyllis Salowe-Kaye, executive director of the NJ Citizen Action Education Fund.

Indeed, added Jaime Torres, a regional director of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, “We’re facing the terrible twos.”

New Jersey is among the states grappling with the key provisions of the reforms that take effect in 2014, including a measure recently passed in the state legislature that would set up an online marketplace where the majority of would buy healthcare plans.

But the constitutionality of the requirement that individuals purchase health coverage is at the heart of the Supreme Court’s decision expected in July.

“We’re currently at a crossroads in New Jersey,” said Jeff Brown, policy advocate for NJ Citizen Action.

Sitting untouched on Gov. Chris Christie’s desk is the legislation that allows the state to set up its own health insurance exchange – the virtual marketplaces defined in the Affordable Care Act that let individuals and small businesses comparison shop for coverage.

“We're not making any huge investments until we know it's constitutional," Christie said earlier this month.

The nation’s popular Republican governor has kept New Jersey on the sidelines of the debate. Twenty-six states filed various lawsuits, and nine others filed friend-of-the-court briefs, that call into question the legality of the Affordable Care Act. Christie has criticized the sweeping law, but did not join the other Republican governors in suing to overturn it. “For once, New Jersey wants a free ride,” Christie said when asked by an editorial board.

The activists gathered Wednesday night in the Valley Arts District in Orange recalled the path to the reforms being challenged. State Sen. (D-Essex), a co-sponsor of the insurance exchange legislation, told advocates the fight, while far from over, will go on.

Talking with NJ Spotlight, Sen. Joseph F. Vitale (D-Middlesex), New Jersey's leading spokesman on healthcare issues, added, “New Jersey is positioned to do some good things in the absence of the federal reform.”

Several key provisions already in effect could potentially remain, including seniors paying less for prescriptions, insurance coverage until age 26 under parents’ plans, and free preventive care – including mammograms and colonoscopies.

Richard Kirsch, a senior fellow at the Roosevelt Institute and author of Fighting for Our Health, has written the story of their grassroots organizing. Signing copies of the book at Hat City, Kirsch became the go-to expert on the what-ifs of the health ruling.

Kirsch was head of Healthcare for America Now during the arduous process. “Will the Affordable Care Act fall apart if the court overturns the mandate?” he was asked.

“It would be harder to make it effective, but not impossible,” Kirsch said, adding the biggest test comes with the November presidential election.

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