In what has become something of a Washington tradition, the Supreme Court again upheld the Affordable Care Act on Thursday, in the third major case from Republican challengers to reach the high court.
The margin this time was larger, 7-2, as the High Court appears less and less interested in revisiting the health care law through the judiciary.
Democrats hailed the ruling as a boost to their signature law, and Republicans were left to figure out a path forward on health care amid another defeat.
Here are five takeaways:
This could be the last gasp of repeal efforts
It is impossible to ever fully rule out another lawsuit challenging the health law or another repeal push if Republicans win back Congress.
But after more than 10 years of fighting the Affordable Care Act, GOP efforts at fighting the law are seriously deflated, as many Republicans themselves acknowledge.
“It’s been my public view for some time that the Affordable Care Act is largely baked into the health care system in a way that it’s unlikely to change or be eliminated,” said Sen. Roy Blunt (Mo.), a member of Senate GOP leadership.
Asked if he still wanted to repeal and replace the law, which was the GOP rallying cry for years, Sen. Chuck Grassley (R-Iowa) said instead, “I think I want to make sure it works,” before attacking former President Obama’s promises about the law’s benefits.
Even Sen. Josh Hawley (R-Mo.), who helped bring the lawsuit against the health law as attorney general of Missouri, said Thursday that the Supreme Court had made clear “they’re not going to entertain a constitutional challenge to the ACA.”
Supporters of the law said it is now even more entrenched, despite years of GOP attacks.
“The war appears to be over and the Affordable Care Act has won,” said Stan Dorn, senior fellow at the health care advocacy group Families USA.
Still, not all Republicans are throwing in the towel on at least verbally attacking the law.
“The ruling does not change the fact that Obamacare failed to meet its promises and is hurting hard-working American families,” said House GOP leaders Kevin McCarthy (Calif.), Steve Scalise (La.) and Elise Stefanik (N.Y.).
And there is at least one ACA-related lawsuit still working its way through the lower courts. Kelley v. Becerra challenges provisions of the health law around insurance plans covering preventive care including birth control.
The Supreme Court was fairly united
The margin of victory for the health law was fairly large, with even more conservative justices such as Clarence Thomas, Amy Coney Barrett, Brett Kavanaugh and John Roberts ruling to uphold the law, joining the opinion from liberal Justice Stephen Breyer.
The court’s other two liberals, Sonia Sotomayor and Elena Kagan, also joined the majority of seven. Two conservatives, Justices Samuel Alito and Neil Gorsuch, dissented and would have struck down the law.
Through the three major Supreme Court cases on ObamaCare, the margin of victory has risen from 5-4 to 6-3 to 7-2.
“There’s a real message there about the Supreme Court’s willingness to tolerate these kinds of lawsuits,” Andy Pincus, a visiting lecturer at Yale Law School, said of the growing margin of victory.
The case was decided on fairly technical grounds. The Court ruled that the challengers did not have standing to sue, given that the penalty for not having health insurance at the center of the case had been reduced to zero, so it was not causing any actual harm that could be the basis for a lawsuit.
Republicans did get some vindication in that Democrats had fiercely attacked Barrett during her confirmation hearings for being a vote to overturn the health law, when in fact she ended up voting to maintain the law.
The ACA is stabilizing
The early years of the Affordable Care Act were marked with the turbulence of a website that failed at launch, premium increases, and major insurers dropping out of the markets given financial losses.
Now, though, the markets are far more stable. For example, 78 percent of ACA enrollees now have the choice of three or more insurers, up from 57 percent in 2017, according to the Kaiser Family Foundation.
Democrats, now in control of the House, Senate and White House, were able to pass earlier this year expansions of the law’s financial assistance to help further bring down premium costs.
The Biden administration announced earlier this month that a record 31 million people were covered under the ACA, including both the private insurance marketplaces and the expansion of Medicaid.
“We are no longer in the Affordable Care Act, ‘How’s it going to go? Is it going to survive?’ mode,” said Frederick Isasi, executive director of Families USA. “We really are in a whole new phase. It really is: ‘How do we improve it?’”
Republicans face questions on their health care message
The Republican health care message for years was summed up with the simple slogan “repeal and replace.”
But now those efforts have failed in Congress, in 2017, and have failed for a third time in the courts.
That leaves uncertainty about what the Republican health care message is. The party has famously struggled to unite around an alternative to the ACA, so there is no consensus alternative for the party to turn to.
The statement from McCarthy, Scalise, and Stefanik calling the ACA “failed,” shows that party leaders are not fully ready to accept the law.
The leaders added that “House Republicans are committed to actually lowering health care costs,” which has been a possible area for the party to focus that is not simply about repealing the ACA.
But any discussion of health care costs is fraught with complications. Republicans, for example, overwhelmingly oppose House Democrats’ legislation to allow the government to negotiate lower drug prices, arguing it would harm innovation from the pharmaceutical industry.
Grassley reached a bipartisan deal on somewhat less sweeping drug pricing legislation with Sen. Ron Wyden (D-Ore.) in 2019, but that bill went too far for many Republicans as well.
Democrats want to go farther, but face an uphill climb
With the ACA further entrenched, and control of the House, Senate and White House, Democrats are looking at ways to build on the health law.
The main health care proposal from the presidential campaign, a government-run “public option” for health insurance, has faded from the conversation and is not expected to be a part of a major legislative package on infrastructure and other priorities Democrats are pushing for this year.
While the health care industry has largely made its peace with the ACA, pushing for a public option or lowering health care costs means taking on a fight with powerful industry groups.
Progressives like Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) have instead poured their energy into expanding Medicare benefits to include dental, vision, and hearing coverage, and lowering the eligibility age to 60.
Allowing the government to negotiate lower drug prices also could make it into the package.
“Now, we’re going to try to make it bigger and better — establish, once and for all, affordable health care as a basic right of every American citizen,” said Senate Majority Leader Charles Schumer (N.Y.). “What a day.”