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Affordable Care Act Survives Latest Supreme Court Challenge

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WASHINGTON — The Affordable Care Act on Thursday survived a third major challenge in the Supreme Court.

A seven-justice majority ruled that the plaintiffs had not suffered the sort of direct injury that gave them standing to sue.

The court did not reach the larger issues in the case: whether the bulk of the sprawling 2010 health care law, President Barack Obama’s defining domestic legacy, could stand without a provision that initially required most Americans to obtain insurance or pay a penalty.

In the years since the enactment of the law in 2010, Republicans have worked hard to destroy it, and President Donald J. Trump relentlessly criticized it. But attempts to repeal it failed, as did two earlier Supreme Court challenges, in 2012 and 2015. With the passing years, the law gained in popularity and was woven into the fabric of the health care system. Its future now seems secure.

Striking down the Affordable Care Act would have expanded the ranks of the uninsured in the United States by about 21 million people — a nearly 70 percent increase — according to recent estimates from the Urban Institute.

The biggest loss of coverage would have been among low-income adults who became eligible for Medicaid under the law after most states expanded the program to include them. But millions of Americans would also have lost private insurance, including young adults whom the law allowed to stay on their parents’ plans until they turned 26 and families whose income was modest enough to qualify for subsidies that help pay their monthly premiums.

A ruling against the law would also have doomed its protections for Americans with past or current health problems — or pre-existing conditions. The protections bar insurers from denying them coverage or charging them more for it.

The case, California v. Texas, No. 19-840, was brought by Republican officials who said the mandate requiring health insurance coverage became unconstitutional after Congress in 2017 eliminated the penalty for failing to obtain coverage because the mandate could no longer be justified as a tax.

The argument was based on the court’s 2012 ruling, in which Chief Justice John G. Roberts Jr., joined by what was at the time the court’s four-member liberal wing, said the mandate was authorized by Congress’s power to assess taxes.

The new challenge was largely successful in the lower courts. A federal judge in Texas ruled that the entire law was invalid, but he postponed the effects of his ruling until the case could be appealed. In 2019, the United States Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit, in New Orleans, agreed that the mandate was unconstitutional but declined to rule on the fate of the remainder of the health law, asking the lower court to reconsider the question in more detail.


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