Good News! The Supreme Court Didn't Kill Obamacare

Photographed by Jessica Nash.
More than 6 million Americans can relax and worry a little less about their health insurance. The Supreme Court has upheld the health insurance law that helps make coverage more affordable.

The Supreme Court heard a challenge to the Affordable Care Act (ie: Obamacare) earlier this year, and the court issued its decision on Thursday morning. While it doesn't have the obvious human interest of the court's other big decision, on gay marriage, (that one, after all, is about love; this one's about insurance), it's actually a really huge deal.

Right now, the government gives subsidies to lots of people who buy insurance, whether they buy it through a federal marketplace or their state insurance exchange. Most of those people wouldn't be able to afford it otherwise. But, the challengers here are arguing that only people who live in states with their own exchanges should get that help.

The caveat: Only 16 states (and D.C.) have those exchanges. That meant that residents of the 34 states that didn’t set up exchanges could have been stuck with crushing insurance bills for the insurance the ACA now requires.


It's a typo that could have left 9 million people uninsured.

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How could this happen? It comes down to four words. One part of the bill says Obamacare can help out lower-income people who are buying insurance in “marketplaces by the state.” Federal officials have already admitted that the wording was a “drafting error” — that they obviously assumed all the states would have exchanges. But, that hasn’t stopped the challengers from saying, typo or not, the law needs to be read literally.

It's not a small deal: 6.5 million people could have lost financial help buying health insurance over that typo, and 9 million could have ended up uninsured.

President Obama's healthcare law has faced opposition — from both Republicans and Democrats — since the very beginning. Republican opposition has remained fierce; the GOP-dominated Congress has tried to repeal the bill 60 times in the past five years. (Yes, 60.) The Supreme Court has already upheld the law against a different challenge in 2012.

Outside Congress, the law is actually working: Recent evidence has suggested that in the two years of the healthcare exchanges, the law has helped keep prices down and enrollment up, even if some have fallen off this year. A recent TIME poll found that it's more popular than its ever been.

Had the law lost, it would have been a major setback to President Obama, who made passing the 2010 law the centerpiece of his first term. It's also not clear what would have happened next. The ordinary solution to a ruling like this one would be for Congress to take up the bill again and pass an amendment to fix or clarify the typo. But, given how vehemently the party that controls Congress has been trying to kill Obamacare, a fix was was all but impossible. According to the Huffington Post, Republicans in the House and Senate hadn't reached any agreement on what to do if the ACA was dismantled.

There was no agreement on what to do if the law had been dismantled.


The other big question critical to people who aren’t political junkies or court-watchers is what this would have actually meant for anyone who doesn’t buy insurance through the exchanges. The whole law is based around the idea that if everyone has insurance and gets regular medical care, there won't be uninsured people who have to seek care in emergency rooms or after becoming gravely ill, which can lead health care providers and insurers to charge more for everyone.

"The Affordable Care Act contains more than a few examples of inartful drafting," the decison said, but ultimately, the Supreme Court decided not to take health insurance away from millions of people over a typo.

This story was originally published on June 8, 2015.
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