UPDATED: Court upholds tax credits in Obamacare

Lisa Neff, Staff writer

The Supreme Court on June 25 rejected a conservative effort to sever a major lifeline in the Affordable Care Act — the tax subsidies that help millions of Americans buy health care insurance on the federal exchange.

“The Affordable Care Act is here to stay,” President Barack Obama said in a White House news conference after learning of the court’s 6-3 decision.

The majority rejected the conservative effort backed by Republican leaders in states such as Wisconsin by upholding the credits available on the federal marketplace at healthcare.gov.

In King v. Burwell, conservatives tried to undermine the Affordable Care Act that Congress passed in 2010 in by seeking to eliminate the tax credits for those who live where the leadership refused to create state exchanges. Wisconsin is one of 34 states.

The conservatives’ argument in King was that the Affordable Care Act made the credits available only to those who purchased their insurance on an exchange “established by the state.” They argued this excluded those who purchased insurance through the federal exchange operated by the U.S. Health and Human Services Department. 

Chief Justice John Roberts wrote the opinion for the majority. “Congress passed the Affordable Care Act to improve health insurance markets, not to destroy them,” Roberts wrote. “If at all possible, we must interpret the Act in a way that is consistent with the former, and avoids the latter.”

He also wrote, “The context and structure of the Act compel us to depart from what would otherwise be the most natural reading of the pertinent statutory phrase.”

Roberts was joined by Justices Anthony Kennedy, Ruth Bader Ginsburg, Sonia Sotomayor, Elena Kagan and Stephen Breyer.

Justice Antonin Scalia wrote the dissent and was joined by Justices Samuel Alito and Clarence Thomas. The Affordable Care Act has been derided and celebrated as “Obamacare.” Scalia wrote, “We should start calling this law SCOTUScare.” 

The dissenter said the majority’s ruling was “interpretative jiggery-pokery” and complained that it was not the job of the Supreme Court to clean up Congress’ sloppy work.

The court’s ruling preserves the subsidies that more than 8 million people receive and an estimated 6.4 million people were at risk of losing if the majority had gone the other way.

Reaction to the court’s ruling was swift.

Shortly after the justices’ midmorning announcement, Minority Leader Harry Reid was on the Senate floor: “Enough’s enough. Let’s move on.”

House Democratic leader Nancy Pelosi of California said in a statement, “This is a victory for common sense and for all American families. It is long past time for Republicans to abandon their assault on the newfound health security that the Affordable Care Act is providing millions and millions of Americans across the country.”

Wisconsin Democrats cheered the ruling and called on Gov. Scott Walker to expand access to health care in the state, including expanding Medicaid coverage. Walker has been a steadfast opponent of the Affordable Care Act and his administration has dramatically cut state health care programs.

“The Affordable Care Act is the law of the land,” said U.S. Rep. Mark Pocan, D-Madison. “Now Gov. Walker must expand Medicaid coverage for Wisconsinites across the state. This would solve his budget problems and save our state $345 million over the next two years — ensuring Wisconsin children and families receive the care they need.”

For the GOP, Wisconsinite and Republican National Committee Chairman Reince Priebus said the court ruling “makes it clear that if we want to fix our broken health care system, then we will need to elect a Republican president with proven ideas and real solutions that will help American families.”

By the numbers

> More than 183,000 Wisconsinites purchased health care insurance through the federal marketplace, as of March 31. 

> About 90.7 percent of Wisconsinites enrolled in the federal exchange received financial assistance to help lower the cost of their coverage, according to the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services.

> The uninsured rate in Wisconsin dropped 2.1 percentage points from 2013 to 2014. The uninsured rate went from 11.7 percent to 9.6 percent.

> Ahead of the court ruling, the Urban Institute calculated that 247,000 Wisconsinites would be unable to afford health insurance coverage and would become uninsured if they lost their tax credits.

— L.N.