This summer, the Supreme Court is set to rule on the constitutionality of a provision in the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act that requires individuals to buy health insurance or pay a tax penalty. Tuesday, the Supreme Court increased the time for next month’s oral arguments from 5.5 hours to six hours, allowing an extra half hour to discuss the Tax Anti-Injunction Act, a law that says courts may not halt a tax that isn’t yet being collected.

Last fall, the Fourth Circuit of Appeals scrapped a lawsuit against the individual mandate based on TAIA because most courts say the statue doesn’t apply in this case, but with the Supreme Court now setting aside the extra time to hear arguments on the act, court watchers speculate this may mean the Supreme Court will delay the ruling until 2014, when the individual mandate goes into effect.

Some health experts, though, say such a delay would be a mistake. “We’ve already had enough uncertainty, postponing it would make uncertainty linger in terms in what they need to do,” says Steve Wojcik, vice president of public policy at the National Business Group on Health. “It’d be better to have a decision sooner rather than later to be able to plan.”

The court has appointed two attorneys to argue that the TAIA applies to the individual mandate as a penalty versus a revenue-raising tax. Both Democrats, Republicans and the business community want a speedy ruling to make rolling out private exchanges an easier transition.

Debbie Harrison, senior regulatory analyst at NBGH, says SCOTUS may just be being thorough. “They want to make sure it’s fully argued before making a decision” since TAIA isn’t a terribly well-known law.

Delaying the ruling may affect the upcoming election, especially if Republicans gain the White House and Congress. Further, both private and public exchanges could stall in implementation. Then, if the individual mandate ultimately is struck down, pieces of the legislation that have already been implemented would have to be reversed, which would be a costly and time-consuming transition.

“I don’t think they’ll attempt again it if it fails,” Wojcik says. “This is another surprise, but it underscores that they’re taking a look at it carefully and allowing time to hear all the arguments.”

Be sure not to miss EBN’s March cover story, “Shades of gray,” which outlines the various scenarios for the Supreme Court ruling.

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