The Affordable Care Act faces a new legal challenge after a federal judge in Texas ruled the law unconstitutional on Friday. The decision risks throwing the nation’s health care system into turmoil should it be upheld on appeal. But little will be different in the meantime.
“Nothing changes for now,” says Julie Rovner, chief Washington correspondent of Kaiser Health News.
“If you need to sign up for health insurance you should,” Rovner tells NPR’s Michel Martin. “If you’re in one of the several states where it’s extended where you can sign up through January, you have time to do that too.”
Below are some questions and answers about the ACA.
1. What was the Texas ruling?
U.S. District Judge Reed O’Connor ruled that the Affordable Care Act was not constitutional. O’Connor made his decision after 18 Republican state attorneys general and two GOP governors brought their case, Rovner reports. They claimed that the Supreme Court upheld the ACA in 2012 because it included an individual mandate — or a tax penalty for Americans who did not buy health insurance. After Congress repealed the individual mandate in 2017, O’Connor said the rest of the law fell apart.
2. Who might this ruling affect?
The Affordable Care Act runs for more than 1,000 pages and includes many provisions — the exchanges for individuals that are frequently political footballs — and a long list of other measures and protections designed to expand insurance coverage.
NPR’s Alison Kodjak reports that the ACA expanded Medicaid, which has allowed more than 10 million people to get coverage in states that chose to expand the program. The law also protects people with pre-existing conditions and allows people up to age 26 to be covered under their parents’ insurance; requires calorie counts at restaurants and gives protections to lactating mothers. The ACA also secured more money for Native American health care and made significant changes to allow for generic drugs and to provide funding for Medicare.
Rovner says people should act as if the ACA is still in place, but the ruling opens a possibility for “an enormous disruption.”
“It would really plunge the nation’s health care system into chaos,” Rovner says. “The federal government wouldn’t be able to pay for Medicare because all the Medicare payments have been structured because of the Affordable Care Act.”
3. What next?
Judge O’Connor did not rule the law has to be enjoined immediately. Saturday was the last day of open enrollment for the ACA in most states. NPR’s Kodjak reports people can still enroll in health plans in states with extended deadlines. She says even the newest ACA insurance policies will go into effect until more legal action plays out in courts. The federal site for insurance, Healthcare.gov, is running a banner that reads, “Court’s decision does not affect 2019 enrollment coverage.”
NPR’s Kodjak says the state of California has already said it will appeal the ruling. Other states will likely join California in the fight to preserve the law, Kodjak reports. Rovner says the case will probably reach the Supreme Court, though lower courts may reject O’Conner’s ruling first.
4. What are the political stakes in this decision?
The political stakes are great. Voters saw health care as an important issue in November’s midterm elections. Kodjak notes Congress voted multiple times in 2017 to repeal the ACA but did not succeed.
“Lots of Republicans were running ads during the midterms saying they were the ones who were going to protect people’s health care, and specifically protect people with pre-existing conditions,” Kodjak says.
The challenge to the ACA brought by Republican attorneys general is aimed at eliminating protections for pre-existing conditions, Kodjak says.
“So now you have Republicans trying to play both sides, which is going to be difficult,” she says.