Thursday, June 25, 2015

Supreme Court upholds Obamacare subsides in all states; ruling has no direct effect on Kentucky, but focuses political debate

By Molly Burchett
Kentucky Health News

The U.S. Supreme Court ruled Thursday that the tax subsidies provided under the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act are legal in every state.

While the ruling has no effect on Kentucky, and would have had no direct effect if it had gone the other way, it sets the table for continued political debate about health policy in Congress and in Kentucky's race for governor.

"Congress passed the Affordable Care Act to improve health insurance markets, not to destroy them," Chief Justice John Roberts wrote in the 6-3 majority opinion. "If at all possible, we must interpret the Act in a way that is consistent with the former, and avoids the latter."

The law says the federal government can pay subsidies to help people afford insurance bought through “an Exchange established by the State.” The lawsuit argued that Americans in the 34 states using the federal exchanges were not eligible for the subsidies, which are crucial to the law's success, helping to make health insurance more affordable, reducing the number of uninsured Americans. Proponents of the law say not providing subsidies to individuals in those 34 states relying on the federal exchange would have upended the law, notes CNN.

President Obama called on critics to accept the law as permanent, saying after the ruling, "The Affordable Care Act is here to stay."

But Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., called Obamacare “a rolling disaster for the American people,” with a “multitude of broken promises, including the one that resulted in millions of Americans losing the coverage they had and wanted to keep. Today’s ruling won’t change the skyrocketing costs in premiums, deductibles, and co-pays that have hit the middle class so hard over the last few years.”

Maps: Percentage uninsured in 2012, above, and 2014, below
Obama countered, "The setbacks I remember clearly. But as the dust has settled, there can be no doubt that this law is working. It has changed, and in some cases saved, American lives. It set this country on a smarter, stronger course." He added, "The law has helped hold the price of health care to its slowest growth in 50 years" and "Nearly one in three Americans who was uninsured a few years ago is insured today. The uninsured rate in America is the lowest since we began to keep records."

A White House fact sheet noted that the law also expanded "access to preventive care, including immunizations, well-child visits, certain cancer screenings, and contraceptive services, with no additional out-of-pocket costs as well as no more annual caps on essential benefit coverage and new annual limits on out-of-pocket costs."

Since Kentucky established its own exchange, Kynect, for buying subsidized health insurance or signing up for Medicaid, the ruling may seem moot for Kentuckians. However, it establishes some of the facts for a health-care policy debate in the governor's race between Republican Matt Bevin and Democratic Attorney General Jack Conway.

The exchanges and the expansion of the federal-state Medicaid program are choices for the states, and Bevin has said that if elected he would shut down Kynect and end the Medicaid expansion, which has covered about 430,000 Kentuckians. The federal government is paying their entire cost through next year; in 2017 the state would start picking up a small share, rising to the law's limit of 10 percent in 2020.

Conway has acknowledged questions about whether the state can afford to pay its share, but to “say you’re going to kick a half a million people off of health insurance based on what we may or may not be able to afford in 2021 is irresponsible.” A Conway spokesman said he "appreciates the court's careful consideration of this case and agrees with today's decision," reports the Lexington Herald-Leader.

The Herald-Leader's Mary Meehan interviewed officials and experts for a package of questions and answers about the law and Kentucky. It is published at

Outgoing Gov. Steve Beshear, a Democrat who expanded Medicaid, said in a statement that the decision “reaffirms that, from the very start, we did the right thing for the more than 500,000 Kentuckians who have qualified for health-care coverage through Kynect since January 1, 2014.”

Susan Zepeda, president and CEO of the Foundation for a Healthy Kentucky, said in a release, "While many have been awaiting this important decision, we must remember that much remains to be done to assure that all Kentuckians – and all Americans – have timely access to safe, effective and affordable quality care." Zepeda said Kentuckians continue to work on ways to improve and protect Kentuckians' health, such as reforming the way we pay for care and making health care cost and pricing more transparent.

"As people who have forgone care too long because of its expense now gain access to care, it will place a larger short-term burden on the health-care system, which approaches like these can help to address," said Zepeda. "The Affordable Care Act permits – and incentivizes – local health care innovation. We can and must shape Kentucky solutions to Kentucky’s health challenges."

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