On the last day of open enrollment for the Affordable Care Act, a judge ruled that Obamacare isn't constitutional, putting the future of 20 million Americans' health care into doubt. The ruling will almost certainly be appealed to the Supreme Court, Bloomberg reported, setting up yet another high-stakes legal battle over Barack Obama's signature legislative achievement.
U.S. District Judge Reed O’Connor, a George W. Bush appointee, determined late Friday that when Congress eliminated the law's individual mandate penalty, it rendered the entire law unconstitutional. His ruling came in response to a lawsuit that 20 states had brought against Obamacare. Those states are: Alabama, Arkansas, Arizona, Florida, Georgia, Indiana, Kansas, Louisiana, Maine, Mississippi, Missouri, Nebraska, North Dakota, South Carolina, South Dakota, Tennessee, Texas, Utah, West Virginia, and Wisconsin.
The decision from the court came down the day before the Obamacare open enrollment deadline. And if your first thought is to worry about your own health insurance, don't worry quite yet. A quick visit to Healthcare.gov, where you can apply and look at your state's health insurance individual marketplace, shows a red banner that simply states "Court’s decision does not affect this season’s open enrollment." You have until Saturday, December 15, to enroll.
It's a complicated situation, but here's the breakdown: In 2012, the Supreme Court upheld the Affordable Care Act, saying that because Congress has the power to levy taxes — and the ACA essentially posed a tax on those who did not obtain health insurance — the law was constitutional. "Because the Constitution permits such a tax, it is not our role to forbid it, or to pass upon its wisdom or fairness," Chief Justice John Roberts wrote in the opinion, The New York Times reported. But in late 2017, the Republican-led Congress passed a tax bill that got rid of the individual mandate.
Because the Supreme Court's decision OK'd the law based on the tax angle, and Congress got rid of that tax penalty, the lawsuit argued that therefore the entire law was invalid. The judge agreed. He wrote:
The court finds the individual mandate can no longer be fairly read as an exercise of Congress’s tax power and is still impermissible under the interstate commerce clause ― meaning the individual mandate is unconstitutional…. [T]he court finds the individual mandate is essential to and inseverable from the remainder of the ACA.
Again, this does not mean that Obamacare immediately disappears. As Vox's Sarah Kliff laid out, Judge O'Connor's ruling will most likely be appealed to higher courts, and legal experts have said that they're wary that his ruling will stand all the way to the Supreme Court. Attorneys general from 16 states who fought to protect Obamacare from the lawsuit argued that because Congress only got rid of the individual mandate penalty in 2017 and did not dismantle the entire law, that means courts should leave the law as Congress did.
If you were wanting to sign up for Obamacare before the Saturday deadline, you still should. It's not exactly clear what will happen right now, but there's a long fight ahead — and you can still make sure you're covered.