In the wake of dueling rulings this week from federal courts, only one thing appears reasonably certain about the Affordable Care Act —the signature health care law is heading back to the United States Supreme Court.
Aside from that, conclusions about the latest kick of the political football are ambiguous at best. In a likely futile effort to keep it simple, here’s what happened: A panel from the U.S. Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit ruled 2-1 that tax subsidies for health insurance coverage purchased from federal exchanges are illegal; almost simultaneously, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit ruled 3-0 in the opposite direction. Among the lessons is a reminder that elections do matter; all the justices who supported Obamacare as it stands were nominated by Democratic presidents, while the two who rejected it were nominated by Republican presidents.
But Americans wouldn’t allow a debate over Obamacare to devolve into partisan bickering, would we? Wait, of course we would. “This ruling against one of the health care law’s central pillars is just one latest reminder of how problem-riddled and unworkable the Affordable Care Act is,” said Rep. Jaime Herrera Beutler, R-Camas. “There are better solutions to ensure Americans who are young, or struggling, or living with a pre-existing condition can access good health care.”
Therein lies the problem. While there are flaws with Obamacare, Republicans have spent four years trying to undermine the law rather than fixing it. Herrera Beutler, in a meeting recently with The Columbian’s Editorial Board, said the law should be repealed, but criticized her party for not devising an alternative: “This is an area I think Republicans have blown it. It does a lot more harm than good.”
Republicans have, indeed, blown it. Instead of proposing solutions, they have been limited to slings and arrows by an administration that would prefer to alter the law by executive order rather than acknowledge its inherent problems. Which is why Republicans seized the D.C. court’s ruling as a victory of sorts. “Today’s ruling is also further proof that President Obama’s health care law is completely unworkable,” House Speaker John Boehner said. “It cannot be fixed.”
In that regard, it is instructive to return to the beginning of the would-be debate, when Democrats pushed through the health care overhaul with scant input and no support from Republicans. The goal: Provide health care for millions of Americans who are unable to afford it, and provide protection for those with pre-existing conditions. Through all the teeth-gnashing caused by the Affordable Care Act, those goals retain support from most Americans.
Tuesday’s competing court rulings hinged simply upon the meaning of the word “ambiguous,” serving as another example of the negligence Democrats employed in crafting the legislation. As then-Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., infamously said at the time, “We have to pass the bill so that you can find out what’s in it.”
What often is not mentioned is that Pelosi then added, “away from the fog of the controversy.”
Four years later, however, the fog is thicker than ever as Obamacare likely heads to the Supreme Court, which ruled two years ago that the law’s mandate that individuals carry insurance was, indeed, constitutional. As legal expert Noah Feldman wrote this week for Bloomberg News, “In the meantime, the ACA is not quite dead. But there’s blood in the water, and the great whites in robes are circling.”