OPINION

Opinion: Supreme Court should uphold Obamacare as is

OSWEGO, NY - JUNE 20: Members of the Dolan family walk home with bags of food after a food distribution by the Food Bank of the Southern Tier Mobile Food Pantry on June 20, 2012 in Oswego, New York. The mobile food pantry program was introduced in 2007 in the Southern Tier of New York and covers nearly 4,000 predominately rural miles. The converted beverage truck delivers fresh produce, dairy products and other grocery items to individuals and families in need. The pantry typically distributes for a period of two hours and provides 100 to 160 families with food. According to the 2010 Census, 15.72% the population serviced by the mobile pantry live at or below the federal poverty level. According to statistics presented at a recent U.S. Senate committee hearing, almost one in seven Americans are living below the poverty line with a significant number of them being children.  (Photo by Spencer Platt/Getty Images)

OSWEGO, NY - JUNE 20: Members of the Dolan family walk home with bags of food after a food distribution by the Food Bank of the Southern Tier Mobile Food Pantry on June 20, 2012 in Oswego, New York. The mobile food pantry program was introduced in 2007 in the Southern Tier of New York and covers nearly 4,000 predominately rural miles. The converted beverage truck delivers fresh produce, dairy products and other grocery items to individuals and families in need. The pantry typically distributes for a period of two hours and provides 100 to 160 families with food. According to the 2010 Census, 15.72% the population serviced by the mobile pantry live at or below the federal poverty level. According to statistics presented at a recent U.S. Senate committee hearing, almost one in seven Americans are living below the poverty line with a significant number of them being children. (Photo by Spencer Platt/Getty Images)  (2012 Getty Images)

Any day now, the Supreme Court will rule on one of the most momentous cases of this term, King v. Burwell. This is the second lawsuit challenging the Affordable Care Act (ACA), and the fate of President Obama’s signature legislation hangs in the balance. Last Monday, the president warned that neither his administration nor the states were prepared to deal with a ruling against the ACA. “If somebody does something that doesn’t make any sense, then, it's hard … to fix,” he said.

The ACA should be read as a whole, not judged by one passage with a semantic error. In King v. Burwell, common sense and the law dictate that the Supreme Court should rule for the Obama administration.

- Raú.A. Reyes

He’s right. The suit against the ACA is based on a twisted interpretation of its language. Legal theory and precedent support upholding “Obamacare.” A ruling against the ACA would be a ruling against the health of Latinos and other Americans.

To be clear, King v. Burwell is not about the constitutionality of the ACA. The Supreme Court already settled that, upholding its legality in 2012.

Instead, this case turns on interpretation of the ACA. Opponents of the law say that the government can only grant health care subsidies to people who bought their insurance on the state exchanges. The Obama administration says that the subsidies are available to all who qualify, no matter whether they bought insurance on the state exchanges or the federal marketplace.    

In effect, opponents of the ACA say the law violates itself. They reached this conclusion after searching through the 900-page law and finding a single sub-clause on which to base a legal challenge. Their case would seem frivolous if there weren’t so much at stake. If the Court sides with the ACA opponents, 6.4 million people – about 20 percent of whom are Hispanic – could lose their health care subsidies and their coverage. People who buy their health coverage without subsidies would be affected too, because insurers would then likely raise their rates, prompting more people to drop out of the ACA. So a ruling against the Obama administration could mean the unraveling of the law. 

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Yet when there is a dispute over the meaning of a law, the Court is supposed to look at the law’s original intent. The intent of the ACA is simple: to provide affordable health care coverage to as many Americans as possible. As legal scholar Jeffrey Toobin notes in The New Yorker, there were 53 meetings of the Senate Finance Committee, 25 meetings of the full Senate, and seven days of committee debate on amendments during the long process of drafting the law. There were similar sessions in the House of Representatives. In all this time, no one ever suggested that subsidies would only be available on the state exchanges.     

If one section of the ACA is inconsistent with the rest of the law, it was the result of a mistake during the drafting process. The Democrats and Republicans who wrote the law have admitted just that. Numerous other provisions throughout the ACA support the Obama administration’s reading of the law. No wonder the New York Times referred to King v. Burwell as “The Phony Legal Attack on Health Care.”   

Besides, the Supreme Court has a formula for dealing with laws whose meanings seem ambiguous. In Chevron vs. Natural Resources Defense Council (1984), the Court held that deference should be given to the interpretation taken by the agency charged with implementing the law. Here that agency is the IRS – and the IRS supports the Obama administration position.      

True, Congress could remedy the ACA with a legislative fix. But given the partisan climate in Washington, this is implausible; when the possibility of a Congressional fix was raised during oral arguments for King v. Burwell, there was laughter in the courtroom. And the law is working and deserves to remain intact. Consider that both Senators Ted Cruz (R-Texas) and Marco Rubio (R-Fla.) have already enrolled their families for ACA coverage. Or that since the law went into effect, the percentage of uninsured Latinos has dropped from 36 percent to 23 percent. That’s why a coalition of 39 leading Latino advocacy groups all support the Obama administration in King v. Burwell. The coalition points out that, if the Court decides in favor of opponents of the ACA, health insurance will become unaffordable for 1.2 million Hispanics.

The ACA should be read as a whole, not judged by one passage with a semantic error. In King v. Burwell, common sense and the law dictate that the Supreme Court should rule for the Obama administration.

Raul A. Reyes is an attorney and columnist in New York City.

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