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Split U.S. Supreme Court upholds subsidies for Affordable Care Act

| Thursday, June 25, 2015, 10:15 a.m.
Security guards the Supreme Court in Washington, Thursday June 25, 2015.
Security guards the Supreme Court in Washington, Thursday June 25, 2015.
A supporter of the Affordable Care Act celebrates after the Supreme Court up held the law in the 6-3 vote at the Supreme Court in Washington June 25, 2015.
REUTERS
A supporter of the Affordable Care Act celebrates after the Supreme Court up held the law in the 6-3 vote at the Supreme Court in Washington June 25, 2015.
Interns run across the plaza of the Supreme Court in Washington, Thursday, June 25, 2015, to report the justices' decided opinions to television stations, an event sometimes referred to as the 'running of the interns.'
Interns run across the plaza of the Supreme Court in Washington, Thursday, June 25, 2015, to report the justices' decided opinions to television stations, an event sometimes referred to as the 'running of the interns.'
Gov. Tom Wolf speaks during a news conference at Caln Elementary School on Wednesday, Feb. 11, 2015, in Thorndale.
Gov. Tom Wolf speaks during a news conference at Caln Elementary School on Wednesday, Feb. 11, 2015, in Thorndale.

A split Supreme Court deflected the latest legal challenge to President Obama's signature health care policy Thursday, upholding tax credits that help more than 300,000 Pennsylvanians and 6 million other Americans pay for health insurance.

The 6-3 decision closes the last major court battle over the Affordable Care Act and leaves opponents to fight the 2010 law through the legislative process, legal observers said. Obama claimed victory at the White House, where he said the law known as Obamacare “is here to stay.”

“If the partisan challenge to this law had succeeded, millions of Americans would have had thousands of dollars' worth of tax credits taken from them. For many, insurance would have become unaffordable again,” he said.

Plaintiffs in King v. Burwell argued that tax credits allowed by the administration broke part of the health care law, which says the assistance should be available through online insurance marketplaces “established by the state.”

Because Pennsylvania and 33 other states rely on federal marketplaces at HealthCare.gov, residents in those states should not qualify for the subsidies, plaintiffs said. Average credits for 382,000 subsidized Pennsylvanians run about $230 a month, federal data show.

Chief Justice John Roberts and Justice Anthony Kennedy joined the court's four Democratic appointees in the majority. They said the law allows tax credits in all 50 states, not only the 16 that have authorized their own online insurance exchanges.

“Congress passed the Affordable Care Act to improve health insurance markets, not to destroy them,” Roberts wrote.

In a dissent he summarized from the bench, Justice Antonin Scalia said: “We should start calling this law SCOTUScare.” Using the acronym for the Supreme Court, Scalia said his colleagues have twice stepped in to save the law from what Scalia considered worthy challenges.

Justices Samuel Alito and Clarence Thomas joined the dissent, as they did in 2012. The court ruled 5-4 that year to uphold the law's core mandate that most Americans obtain health insurance or pay a penalty.

Republican lawmakers vowed to keep trying to rework or replace the law, designed by the administration to expand coverage to at least 30 million uninsured Americans. Critics argue the approach burdens the economy, inflates deductibles and confuses health care coverage for too many families.

“This decision lets live an unworkable law that was rushed through Congress without a single Republican vote and has since failed to live up to promises made to the American people,” said Rep. Keith Rothfus, R-Edgeworth.

Still, Democratic Gov. Tom Wolf welcomed the ruling. He had begun contingency planning for a state-based insurance marketplace, which would have kept subsidies flowing to Pennsylvanians regardless of the court decision.

“My administration will be notifying the federal government that we will be withdrawing our plan” for a state-based marketplace, Wolf said in a statement.

Such a plan would have required support from the Republican-controlled General Assembly, where lawmakers might have objected, said University of Pittsburgh law professor Alan Meisel. A House Republican spokesman said this month that the administration had not fully revealed its plans or the costs.

Meisel called the court decision “a huge relief for state lawmakers across the country” who don't have to figure out fall-back plans. He said disagreements at the state level could have led to chaos in the health care market, price increases and tougher access to insurance.

“Nobody can really say what would have happened. Thank goodness we're not going to find out,” said Meisel.

Other challenges await the Affordable Care Act, though scholars said much of that opposition should emerge through attempted amendments or repeals in Congress instead of court action.

Pending legal action includes several dozen cases over birth control coverage, according to Kaiser Health News.

House Republicans are contesting how the administration implemented some elements of the law, including a delay in a mandatory coverage requirement for larger employers, Kaiser reported.

“Obamacare will continue to disrupt coverage for sick Americans until Congress repeals it and replaces it with reforms that make health care better, more affordable and more secure,” said Michael Cannon, director of health policy studies at the Cato Institute in Washington.

The institute supported the plaintiffs with a brief in King v. Burwell. Cannon said the court decision allows Obama to spend $700 billion that Congress never authorized.

At the Pennsylvania Health Access Network in Philadelphia, director Antoinette Kraus said the law has helped put health insurance within reach for thousands of people. As many as 498,000 Pennsylvanians are eligible for the subsidies, though fewer than 400,000 are signed up, according to Kaiser Family Foundation and state figures.

“We know there's still a lot of folks who need to enroll,” Kraus said.

The Associated Press contributed to this report. Adam Smeltz is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at 412-380-5676 or asmeltz@tribweb.com.

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