Aetna CEO Says Supreme Court Won’t Drop Entire Health Law

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The U.S. Supreme Court probably won’t overturn President Barack Obama’s entire health-care law, and provisions forcing insurers to cover more medical care may survive no matter who wins the November elections, Aetna Inc.’s chief executive officer said.

The health-care overhaul’s future hinges on the outcome of this year’s races for Congress and the White House and, beyond that, discussions over how to trim the U.S. debt and budget deficit, Mark Bertolini, head of the nation’s third-biggest health insurer, said today during an investor conference.

The 2010 law will extend health coverage to about 32 million Americans by 2016, at a net cost of $1 trillion, the Congressional Budget Office estimates. If the law survives the court decision expected next month, Republicans are likely to go after its funding next year, especially if they keep control of the House while retaking the U.S. Senate, Bertolini said.

“You’ll see a battle through the budget process” with Republicans vying “to defund the Affordable Care Act,” he said at a Sanford C. Bernstein & Co. conference in New York.

The court is considering a challenge to the law’s requirement that all Americans get health insurance or pay a penalty. If that’s found unconstitutional, the justices might strike down the entire legislation. Bertolini said he expected a more limited ruling.

No Republican in Congress voted for the health-care act in 2010 and many of the lawmakers have introduced bills that would repeal part or all of it. The party’s presumptive presidential nominee, former Massachusetts Governor Mitt Romney, has said he intends to eliminate the health overhaul should he defeat Obama.

Law’s Future

Even if Republicans control Congress and win the White House in November, many of the law’s regulations will survive in some form, Bertolini said. That includes provisions allowing parents to keep children on their health plan until age 26 as well as a ban on benefit limits.

“You’ll see this big movement for repeal but you’ll very quickly hear ‘replace’” he said. “Nobody on either side of the aisle is willing to tell families, ‘you know that 26-year-old you got covered under your policy? You can’t do that anymore.’ Or ‘You know that kid that’s survived cancer and is hitting his limits on health-care costs? We’re going to put the limits back on the kid.’”

Aetna, based in Hartford, Connecticut, fell 1.1 percent to $41.36 at the close of New York trading. Health insurance stocks declined less than 1 percent for the day, as measured by the Standard & Poor’s Supercomposite Managed Care Index, which follows the 12 biggest for-profit health plans.

Long Debate

The law’s impact will remain unsettled for years to come, the CEO of the biggest U.S. insurer, UnitedHealth Group Inc., said in a later presentation.

The debate over funding will be “an element of every budget going forward forever,” UnitedHealth’s Stephen Hemsley said at the conference. “There’ll be opportunities to shape this in ways that will work well within the marketplace.”

If the law is struck down, he said, “the underlying currents that have driven that legislation will still be there: the need for coverage, the need to deal with costs, the need to make the health-care system more effective.”

UnitedHealth rose less than 1 percent to $56.17 in New York trading. The company is based in Minnetonka, Minnesota.

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