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What to know as ACA heads to Supreme Court – again


What impact will new Justice Amy Coney Barrett have?

Perhaps a lot. Before the death of Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, most court observers thought the case was highly unlikely to result in the entire law being struck down. That’s because Chief Justice John Roberts voted to uphold the law in 2012, and again when it was challenged in a less sweeping way in 2015.

But with Barrett replacing Ginsburg, even if Roberts joined the court’s remaining three liberals they could still be outvoted by the other five conservatives. Barrett was coy about her views on the Affordable Care Act during her confirmation hearings in October, but she has written that she thinks Roberts was wrong to uphold the law in 2012.

Could a new president and Congress make the case go away?

Many have suggested that, if Joe Biden assumes the presidency, his Justice Department could simply drop the case. But the administration did not bring the case; the GOP state officials did. And while normally the Justice Department’s job is to defend existing laws in court, in this case the ACA is being defended by a group of Democratic state attorneys general. A new administration could change that position, but that’s not the same as dropping the case.

Congress, on the other hand, could easily make the case moot. It could add back even a nominal financial penalty for not having insurance. It could eliminate the mandate altogether, although that would require 60 votes in the Senate under current rules. Congress could also pass a “severability” provision saying that, if any portion of the law is struck down, the rest should remain.

“The problem is not technical,” said Bagley. “It’s political.”

What is the timeline for a decision? Could the court delay implementation of its ruling?

The court usually hears oral arguments in a case months before it issues a decision. Unless the decision is unanimous or turns out to be very simple, Bagley said, he would expect to see an opinion “sometime in the spring.”

As to whether the court could find some or all of the law unconstitutional but delay when its decision takes effect, Bagley said that happened from time to time as recently as the 1970s. “That practice has been more or less abandoned,” he said, but in the case of a law so large, “you could imagine the Supreme Court using its discretion to say the decision wouldn’t take effect immediately.”

If the court does invalidate the entire ACA, Congress could act to fix things, but it’s unclear if it will be able to, especially if Republicans still control the Senate. If the justices strike the law, Bagley said, “I honestly think the likeliest outcome is that Congress runs around like a chicken with its head cut off, doesn’t come to a deal, and we’re back to where we were before 2010” when the ACA passed.

Kaiser Health News is a nonprofit news service covering health issues. It is an editorially independent program of KFF (Kaiser Family Foundation), which is not affiliated with Kaiser Permanente.


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