Ruling by a decisive 7-2 margin, in what dissenting Justice Samuel Alito described as the third in “our epic Affordable Care Act trilogy”, the Supreme Court rejected the latest—and likely the last—effort to overturn the 2010 health reform law. Holding that the states and individuals that brought the latest challenge to the law did not have “standing”—the legal right to sue—the high court effectively closed the book on a decade-long series of challenges to the Affordable Care Act (ACA). Those efforts have included two previous Supreme Court cases, numerous promises to “repeal and replace” Obamacare, and the neutering of the law’s “individual mandate” to buy health insurance, which led to this latest case, Texas v. California.
At issue in the case was whether, by zeroing out the penalty for not purchasing insurance, Congress effectively removed the ACA’s status as a taxation measure, which the Court had previously held as central to the constitutionality of the law. In Alito’s dissenting opinion, the full implications of the issue are laid out: in his view, by invalidating the mandate, Congress rendered the entire law unconstitutional, meaning that it should be overturned. But a majority of seven Justices, including Kavanaugh and Barrett (both appointed by President Trump) disagreed, joining Justice Breyer in his opinion that no harm had been done to the states that brought the suit, and ordering that the case be returned to the lower court for dismissal.
More than ten years after the passage of the ACA, it now (finally) seems as though the law is here to stay. Bolstering its central provisions—subsidized individual insurance coverage, expanded Medicaid benefits, protections for those who purchase insurance—is a centerpiece of the Biden administration’s policy program, featured first in the American Rescue Plan Act, and now in the recovery legislation currently being debated. Republicans, who had long opposed the ACA, barely mentioned it during the last presidential campaign, instead turning their focus to thwarting Democrats’ plans to expand coverage by lowering the Medicare eligibility age or implementing a government-run “public option”.
Given the evenly split makeup of the Senate, however, we continue to believe the greatest hurdle such proposals will face is not Republican opposition, but reluctance on the part of conservative Democrats, like Sen. Joe Manchin (WV), whose votes will be needed for any legislation to pass.
With the Supreme Court calling a third strike against challenges to the ACA, and the new administration eager to advance its other priorities (infrastructure, childcare, jobs), for the first time in over a decade, we might just be in for a period of relative calm on the healthcare policy front.