Spotlight back on healthcare law

Health insurance premiums surged 9 percent in 2011, according to a report released Tuesday that raised new doubts about President Obama’s signature legislative accomplishment.

Republicans seized on the annual Kaiser Family Foundation survey, arguing it flew in the face of Obama’s campaign promise that healthcare reform would lead to lower insurance costs.

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Instead, the Senate Republican Policy Committee calculated, average family premiums have increased by $2,213 so far under the administration.

The report was released a day after the Department of Justice decided against asking the full U.S. Court of Appeals for the 11th Circuit to take up a challenge to the healthcare law. That decision all but ensured consideration by the Supreme Court, which would be expected to make a ruling by June 2012.

Taken together, the two pieces of news left no doubt that the debate over the healthcare law will return to prominence as the 2012 presidential campaign intensifies next summer.

Republicans pointedly drew a link from the Kaiser survey to Obama’s promise that premiums would be reduced by $2,500.

“As this survey shows, the president’s promise that his partisan health law would lower costs was just empty rhetoric,” Sen. Orrin Hatch (Utah), the top Republican on the tax-writing Senate Finance Committee, said in a statement. “The fact is employers aren’t hiring, in large part, because they have to spend more and more money on health insurance.”

The White House appeared to recognize the damage the report could cause, and tipped off reporters almost 24 hours before the survey was made public to get out its views on Kaiser’s findings.

“The Kaiser report is informative," White House Deputy Chief of Staff Nancy-Ann DeParle wrote on the White House blog, “but it’s a look backwards. When we look to the future, we know that the Affordable Care Act will help make insurance more affordable for families and businesses across the country.”

The 2012 GOP field has been hammering Obama over “ObamaCare” in a debate that has become increasingly personal.

And the eventual Republican nominee might gain a new weapon if the Supreme Court overturns the individual mandate — already one of the law’s most politically unpopular features.

By not asking the 11th Circuit to rehear its case on the mandate, the White House passed on its best chance to delay a Supreme Court ruling that’s now likely to come next summer. But an administration official said the rehearing was hardly guaranteed to push the decision into 2013, and it might not have been granted in the first place.

Alex Keyssar, a history professor at Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government, couldn’t recall a time since the New Deal when such a centrally important piece of legislation has been in the Supreme Court’s hands so close to a president’s reelection campaign.

The process of deciding which lawsuit to hear will advance Wednesday, when the Justice Department must file a brief with the Supreme Court in a separate case. All of the relevant petitions will be filed within the next several weeks, legal observers said, which means oral arguments would happen in the first few months of next year.

If the court holds on to its ruling until the end of its term — as it often does with high-profile cases — the decision would be released in June.

The healthcare law’s supporters say they’re not worried about the prospect of a summer 2012 ruling.

“If the Supreme Court is willing to be that arrogant, to say that someone can dream up a customized legal theory to chop away at a law they don’t like, then we have bigger problems than who wins the presidential election,” said Ian Millhiser, a legal analyst at the liberal Center for American Progress.

Every Republican candidate has vowed to repeal the law. And Democrats themselves have repeatedly pushed the notion that the law is modeled after former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney’s (R) reforms, in part to draw primary voters’ ire against a candidate they think has the best chances of beating Obama next year.

Democrats are also doing all they can to create support for the law, which remains as divisive as ever: Forty-one percent of respondents in the September Kaiser poll had a favorable view, versus 43 percent whose view was unfavorable.

The White House has been drawing particular attention to the 2.3 million young adults the Kaiser survey said have gained coverage thanks to the law’s requirement that family plans cover children up to age 26.