A majority of the U.S. Supreme Court signaled Tuesday it is likely to rebuff a Republican effort to strike down the country’s Affordable Care Act health care law that provides medical insurance for millions of Americans.
At a hearing in Washington before the nine-member court, two conservative jurists, Chief Justice John Roberts and Justice Brett Kavanaugh, both indicated they were inclined to join three liberals on the court in keeping the law in effect.
Enacted in 2010 and fiercely opposed by Republicans since its inception, the Affordable Care Act sought to incentivize Americans to purchase private health care insurance while also expanding access to government-funded health care for the poor.
Republican state officials, backed by the administration of President Donald Trump, asserted at the hearing the entire law should be overturned since Congress in 2017 reduced to zero the amount of a tax penalty Americans would have to pay if they did not buy health insurance.
But Kavanaugh, whom Trump appointed to the court, said, “It does seem fairly clear that the proper remedy would be to sever the mandate provision and leave the rest of the law in place.”
Roberts said much the same: “Congress left the rest of the law intact when it lowered the penalty to zero.”
Three court liberals — Stephen Breyer, Elena Kagan and Sonia Sotomayor — also have supported the law, popularly known as Obamacare after former President Barack Obama, who championed its passage.
One of the justices hearing the case was Justice Amy Coney Barrett, a recent Trump nominee who gives conservatives a 6-3 ideological majority on the country’s top court. Before Trump appointed her to an appellate court judgeship in 2017, Barrett had criticized Roberts in a law journal for his key vote in a 2012 case upholding the constitutionality of Obamacare, with Roberts viewing the required payment for not buying insurance as a tax.
It is not known how Barrett might vote in the latest challenge to the law, which has risen in popularity over the years and enjoys majority backing, according to opinion polls.
After the court hearing, President-elect Joe Biden told reporters it was essential for the law to remain in effect, saying it has “saved countless families from financial ruin.”
He attacked Republican efforts to overturn it as “simply cruel and needlessly divisive.”
Tuesday’s case was brought by Republican officials who argued the health insurance mandate was critical to the law, and without a penalty, the entire statute should be overturned.
When Congress first passed the law, the rationale for the penalty payments was that requiring people to have coverage would bring healthier people into the system who would pay premiums without using many services, helping to offset costs of individuals who needed more care, including those with pre-existing conditions who had previously been denied coverage.
Texas and its partner states have argued that eliminating the individual mandate would create a cost imbalance and push health costs unfairly higher for many people.
The Democratic-leaning state of California has supported the law, arguing that Congress, by eliminating the penalty payments in 2017 and keeping the remainder of the law intact, showed it had no intention of abandoning the statute.
When the court heard the 2012 challenge to Obamacare, six current justices participated in the case, with Justices Samuel Alito and Clarence Thomas voting to strike down the entire law. Roberts, Breyer, Kagan and Sotomayor voted to uphold it.
Justices Barrett, Kavanaugh and Neil Gorsuch — all Trump nominees — have since joined the court.