The Supreme Court Nov. 14 agreed to take three separate cases challenging the constitutionality of the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act, granting an unusually lengthy time period for oral arguments.

The court Nov. 14 agreed to hear three cases out of Florida, each raising questions about different aspects of the national health care program signed into law in March 2010. It set aside five and a half hours for oral arguments, likely to occur in March.

Among the issues the court will review will be the constitutionality of the law's mandate that every American buy health insurance by 2014; whether parts of the law or all of it "must fail" if the mandate is struck down; and the constitutionality of expanding the Medicaid program for the poor and disabled.

Several federal courts have upheld key provisions of the law, while at least one has found parts of it unconstitutional.

Earlier this year, on Jan. 10, the House voted to repeal the health reform law, but the Senate voted 51-47 Feb. 2 against a Republican-led repeal effort.

For the U.S. Catholic bishops, it has never been a question of whether to repeal or not repeal the law.

"Basic health care for all is a moral imperative, not yet completely achieved," said the chairmen of three committees of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops in a January letter to members of Congress.

"Rather than joining efforts to support or oppose the repeal of the recently enacted health care law, we will continue to devote our efforts to correcting serious moral problems in the current law, so health care reform can truly be life-affirming for all," said Cardinal Daniel DiNardo of Galveston-Houston, Bishop Stephen Blaire of Stockton and Archbishop José Gomez of Los Angeles in the letter.

Just as they did during debate over the health reform legislation, the bishops identified three "moral criteria" that they believe our health system must reflect:

--- "Access to quality, affordable, life-giving health care for all."

--- Protection of the conscience rights of health providers and a ban on any federal funding of "elective abortions or plans that include them."

--- Continued access to health care for immigrants and the removal of existing barriers to access.

"We will advocate for addressing the current problems in the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act, as well as others that may become apparent in the course of its implementation," the USCCB leaders said in their letter.

In the past several months, the U.S. bishops and numerous other Catholic entities have raised objections to a mandate issued Aug. 1 by the Department of Health and Human Services that requires no-cost coverage of contraception and sterilization in most health plans, saying that providing the coverage violates their conscience rights and that a proposed religious exemption is too narrowly drawn.

The mandate is what the federal government terms an "interim final rule" that has "the full force and effect of law." A comment period on the proposed religious exemption has expired but HHS has not made public its final decision on the exemption.

A White House spokesman said Nov. 14 that the Obama administration was "pleased the court has agreed to hear this case."

"We know the Affordable Care Act is constitutional and are confident the Supreme Court will agree," the spokesman said.