No one said wrecking Obamacare would be easy.
The lawyer for plaintiffs challenging a key part of Obamacare faced pointed questions by several Supreme Court justices Wednesday, who asked if his clients even had the legal right to dispute the legality of tax credits that help more than 7 million people in 37 states buy insurance plans from HealthCare.gov. Nearly 9 in 10 HealthCare.gov customers receive subsidies.
Justice Anthony Kennedy, who is considered a likely swing vote in the case, suggested there is "a serious constitutional problem" with a major claim by the plaintiffs in the case, known as King v. Burwell.
And Justice Samuel Alito voiced the possibility that if the Supreme Court rules the HealthCare.gov subsidies are illegal, it could stay its ruling until the end of the year. That would mean that people who rely on the tax credits to make their plans affordable would not be pressured to drop their insurance in the middle of the plan year.
The court is expected to rule on the case in late June.
The stocks of major insurers and hospitals increased in price on news of Kennedy's questions for the plaintiffs.
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The questions played out during oral arguments at the high court, which is considering a case that could possibly eliminate billions of dollars in federal subsidies given to customers of HealthCare.gov. A victory for the plaintiffs would, in the absence of a fix by Congress, lead to an exodus of millions of people from the individual insurance markets in HealthCare.gov states, and much higher premiums for the remaining customers, experts agree.
Plaintiffs claim tax credits can only be given to customers of an insurance marketplace set up and run by an individual state. HealthCare.gov was set up by the federal government after most states refused to set up their own exchange as authorized by the Affordable Care Act.
Michael Carvin, the plaintiff's lawyer, hinges his challenge on language in the ACA that discusses how tax credits for premiums can be issued to customers of an exchange "established by the State." Congress, according to Carvin, meant the subsidies to be an incentive to set up the exchanges. States that failed to do so, under that argument, would deny their residents help to buy Obamacare plans.