OLYMPIA, Wash. -- Democrats in Washington state celebrated Thursday's U.S. Supreme Court decision upholding President Barack Obama's health care overhaul, and key officials said the state is on track to continue implementing reforms.
In a 5-4 ruling, the court upheld virtually all of the law, including the contentious individual insurance requirement that was opposed by Washington state's Republican Attorney General Rob McKenna, who joined in on the lawsuit against the wishes of Gov. Chris Gregoire and other state Democrats.
Gregoire applauded the high court's decision on Thursday, saying "we firmly believed that this law was constitutional and would ultimately withstand legal challenge."
"It is a historic decision that will allow Washington to continue to be a leader in this country in providing quality affordable health care," she said at a news conference. "We still have a lot of work to do, but in Washington state, we're ready for health care reform."
Gregoire noted that Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, in her concurrence of the majority ruling, cited an amicus brief filed on the Washington governor's behalf that described the state's failed attempt to reform health care in 1993.
"We went on our own, and we failed, because we didn't have an individual mandate," Gregoire said. "Without the individual mandate, we had a disaster in our state. We couldn't go on our own. We needed national health care reform."
While several reforms are currently in place in the state as a result of the new federal law, several benefits and programs won't take effect until 2014, including an expansion of Medicaid for 328,000 low-income adults who don't have children, and the ban preventing insurance companies from denying people coverage if they're sick.
Online insurance exchanges are key to the federal health care law, and in March, Gregoire signed into law a bill setting rules for insurers preparing for the state's online insurance exchange set to go live on Jan. 1, 2014.
Washington state Insurance Commissioner Mike Kreidler said that the months of uncertainty over what the ruling would be had been "one of those dark clouds that hung over our heads."
Kreidler said state officials had been "proceeding at full speed" and called the ruling "vindication" of the work the state has already done.
"We feel a lot of relief," he said.
Kreidler said that Thursday's ruling meant that "all the prep work wasn't for naught, it was something that's going to be critical for us to meet the timelines."
The most recent U.S. Census Bureau numbers show that 927,000 people in the state are without health insurance, or 13.8 percent, though Kreidler's office said their numbers show that more than one million, or 15 percent, don't have insurance today.
McKenna, a Republican candidate for governor, had joined other GOP attorneys general in the federal health care lawsuit more than a year ago over the strong objections of Gregoire and Democratic lawmakers.
McKenna said Thursday that the court's decision was a victory in one way because the mandate was called a tax. He said allowing the mandate under the Commerce Clause would have dramatically expanded the power of Congress to regulate what people can do, but he expressed concern about whether there were limits to how Congress could force people to take action by punishing them with taxes.
McKenna said he didn't want Congress to repeal the whole law and that the individual mandate should stay for now. He wants lawmakers to focus on identifying changes to some aspect of the measure while keeping those that are popular.
Republican U.S. Rep. Cathy McMorris Rodgers said she was disappointed in the ruling but it will have "no impact on Congress' continuing efforts to repeal the law."
"In fact, we are more determined than ever to repeal it and replace it with something better," she said in a written statement.