WASHINGTON, D.C. – On Feb. 27, 2018, I got an email from the Heritage Foundation, alerting me to a news conference that afternoon held by Republican attorneys general of Texas and other states. It was referred to only as a “discussion about the Affordable Care Act lawsuit.”
I sent the following note to my editor: “I’m off to the Hill anyway. I could stop by this. You never know what it might morph into.”
Few people took that case very seriously — barely a handful of reporters attended the news conference. But it has now “morphed into” the latest existential threat against the Affordable Care Act, scheduled for oral arguments at the Supreme Court a week after the general election in November. And with the death of Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg on Friday, that case could well morph into the threat that brings down the law in its entirety.
Democrats are raising alarms about the future of the law without Ginsburg. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, speaking on ABC’s “This Week” Sunday morning, said that part of the strategy by President Donald Trump and Senate Republicans to quickly fill her seat was to help undermine the ACA.
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“The president is rushing to make some kind of a decision because … Nov. 10 is when the arguments begin on the Affordable Care Act,” she said. “He doesn’t want to crush the virus. He wants to crush the Affordable Care Act.”
Ginsburg’s death throws an already chaotic general election campaign during a pandemic into more turmoil. But in the longer term, her absence from the bench could accelerate a trend underway to get cases to the Supreme Court toward invalidating the ACA and rolling back reproductive freedoms for women.
Let’s take them one at a time.
The ACA Under Fire — Again
The GOP attorneys general argued in February 2018 that the Republican-sponsored tax cut bill Congress passed two months earlier had rendered the ACA unconstitutional by reducing to zero the ACA’s penalty for not having insurance. They based their argument on Chief Justice John Roberts’ 2012 conclusion that the ACA was valid, interpreting that penalty as a constitutionally appropriate tax.
Most legal scholars, including several who challenged the law before the Supreme Court in 2012 and again in 2015, find the argument that the entire law should fall to be unconvincing. “If courts invalidate an entire law merely because Congress eliminates or revises one part, as happened here, that may well inhibit necessary reform of federal legislation in the future by turning it into an ‘all or nothing’ proposition,” wrote a group of conservative and liberal law professors in a brief filed in the case.
Still, in December 2018, U.S. District Judge Reed O’Connor in Texas accepted the GOP argument and declared the law unconstitutional. In December 2019, a three-judge 5th Circuit appeals court panel in New Orleans agreed that without the penalty the requirement to buy insurance is unconstitutional. But it sent the case back to O’Connor to suggest that perhaps the entire law need not fall.
Not wanting to wait the months or years that reconsideration would take, Democratic attorneys general defending the ACA asked the Supreme Court to hear the case this year. (Democrats are defending the law in court because the Trump administration decided to support the GOP attorneys general’s case.) The court agreed to take the case but scheduled arguments for the week after the November election.
While the fate of the ACA was and is a live political issue, few legal observers were terribly worried about the legal outcome of the case now known as Texas v. California, if only because the case seemed much weaker than the 2012 and 2015 cases in which Roberts joined the court’s four liberals. In the 2015 case, which challenged the validity of federal tax subsidies helping millions of Americans buy health insurance on the ACA’s marketplaces, both Roberts and now-retired Justice Anthony Kennedy voted to uphold the law.
But without Ginsburg, the case could wind up in a 4-4 tie, even if Roberts supports the law’s constitutionality. That could let the lower-court ruling stand, although it would not be binding on other courts outside of the 5th Circuit. The court could also put off the arguments or, if the Republican Senate replaces Ginsburg with another conservative justice before arguments are heard, Republicans could secure a 5-4 ruling against the law. Some court observers argue that Justice Brett Kavanaugh has not favored invalidating an entire statute if only part of it is flawed and might not approve overturning the ACA. Still, what started out as an effort to energize Republican voters for the 2018 midterms after Congress failed to “repeal and replace” the health law in 2017 could end up throwing the nation’s entire health system into chaos.
At least 20 million Americans — and likely many more who sought coverage since the start of the coronavirus pandemic — who buy insurance through the ACA marketplaces or have Medicaid through the law’s expansion could lose coverage right away. Many millions more would lose the law’s popular protections guaranteeing coverage for people with preexisting health conditions, including those who have had COVID-19.
Adult children under age 26 would no longer be guaranteed the right to remain on their parents’ health plans, and Medicare patients would lose enhanced prescription drug coverage. Women would lose guaranteed access to birth control at no out-of-pocket cost.
But a sudden elimination would affect more than just health care consumers. Insurance companies, drug companies, hospitals and doctors have all changed the way they do business because of incentives and penalties in the health law. If it’s struck down, many of the “rules of the road” would literally be wiped away, including billing and payment mechanisms.
A new Democratic president could not drop the lawsuit, because the Trump administration is not the plaintiff (the GOP attorneys general are). But a Democratic Congress and president could in theory make the entire issue go away by reinstating the penalty for failure to have insurance, even at a minimal amount. However, as far as the health law goes, for now, nothing is a sure thing.
As Nicholas Bagley, a law professor at the University of Michigan who specializes in health issues, tweeted: “Among other things, the Affordable Care Act now dangles from a thread.”
A woman’s right to abortion — and even to birth control — also has been hanging by a thread at the high court for more than a decade. This past term, Roberts joined the liberals to invalidate a Louisiana law that would have closed most of the state’s abortion clinics, but he made it clear it was not a vote for abortion rights. The Louisiana law was too similar to a Texas law the court (without his vote) struck down in 2016, Roberts argued.
Ginsburg had been a stalwart supporter of reproductive freedom for women. In her nearly three decades on the court, she always voted with backers of abortion rights and birth control and led the dissenters in 2007 when the court upheld a federal ban on a specific abortion procedure.
Adding a justice opposed to abortion to the bench — which is what Trump has promised his supporters — would almost certainly tilt the court in favor of far more dramatic restrictions on the procedure and possibly an overturn of the landmark 1973 ruling Roe v. Wade.
And waiting in the lower-court pipeline are cases involving federal funding of Planned Parenthood in both the Medicaid and federal family planning programs, and the ability of individual health workers to decline to participate in abortion and other procedures.
For Ginsburg, those issues came down to a clear question of a woman’s guarantee of equal status under the law.
“Women, it is now acknowledged, have the talent, capacity, and right ‘to participate equally in the economic and social life of the Nation,’” she wrote in her dissent in that 2007 abortion case. “Their ability to realize their full potential, the Court recognized, is intimately connected to ‘their ability to control their reproductive lives.’”
This story also ran on NPR. HealthBent, a regular feature of Kaiser Health News, offers insight and analysis of policies and politics from KHN’s chief Washington correspondent, Julie Rovner, who has covered health care for more than 30 years. KHN is an editorially independent program of KFF (Kaiser Family Foundation), which is not affiliated with Kaiser Permanente.