The Supreme Court isn’t done with the ACA case yet. Here are the next steps.

By | January 23, 2020

Tuesday’s one-sentence order from the U.S. Supreme Court denying a request to fast-track the challenge to the Affordable Care Act is not the final word from the high court.

The justices will now decide whether to take up the legal case threatening to overturn the landmark law during their next term, which begins in October.

Essentially, the order returns the case to the typical review process as a group of blue states, led by California’s Democratic Attorney General Xavier Becerra, try to convince the Supreme Court it should hear the case at some point instead of letting it wind its way back through the lower courts.

“The court did not say we’re not reviewing this case at all,” MaryBeth Musumeci, an associate director at Kaiser Family Foundation and graduate of Harvard Law School, told Healthcare Dive.

The blue states sought to expedite the case, which would have resulted in a ruling before the presidential election in November. Some Democrats hoped that would pressure Republicans to come up with a replacement had the law been tossed, or more publicly defend efforts that would kill popular provisions like protections for pre-existing conditions.

The court refused to accelerate its review despite requests from hospitals, insurers, advocacy groups including AARP and a group of bipartisan economic scholars.

“It’s disappointing but it’s not altogether unsurprising. They typically don’t like to grant expedited review,” Katie Keith, a lawyer and health policy expert at Georgetown University​, told Healthcare Dive.

Other legal experts warned against reading too much into Tuesday’s order and what it may mean for the case going forward.

“Expediting was always unlikely. It’s a big ask for little purpose here. I wouldn’t read anything else into it,” Jonathan Adler, a law professor at Case Western Reserve University, told Healthcare Dive​.

Careful observers of the case should expect the justices to vote on whether to take it up by June at the latest, Keith said.

In the meantime, Tuesday’s order sets off another wave of briefs. First, the red states will try to convince the court of its position on whether the legal challenge should be heard in October. Expect that motion in the first few days of February, experts told Healthcare Dive.

Robert Henneke, the lawyer representing the individual plaintiffs, told Healthcare Dive his team will argue that the case is still premature for Supreme Court review. “The opinion from the Fifth Circuit was not a complete opinion,” Henneke said.

The appeals court in part affirmed a lower court’s decision, ruling that the individual mandate is unconstitutional because it can no longer be considered a tax. However, it sent the key question of whether the rest of the ACA can stand without the mandate back to the lower court for further analysis.

Becerra has argued that the lower court’s decision is wrong and, without a definitive ruling from the Supreme Court, the challenge only fuels doubt about the future of the ACA — credited with significantly reducing the ranks of the uninsured.

“The health and wellbeing of millions of our loved ones who rely on the ACA for healthcare is too important. We will do everything in our power to keep fighting for them,” Becerra said in a tweet following the order.

Nevertheless, Tuesday’s result likely thrusts the issue of the ACA back in the spotlight for another presidential campaign cycle.

Much of the healthcare debate among Democrats vying to take on President Donald Trump has revolved around a “Medicare for All” idea. One question now is, will Democrats shift to talk about rescuing the ACA, a law in place but remains in jeopardy?

The problem is the outcome is still uncertain, Stephanie Kennan, senior vice president of federal public affairs at McGuireWoods Consulting, told Healthcare Dive. However, it does give Democrats the opportunity to talk about what’s popular in the bill, noting protections for those with pre-existing conditions.

“It certainly gives them a springboard for them to talk about the things they could do to fix it,” Kennan said.

Despite Tuesday’s outcome, there will still be some Democratic contenders who will campaign for Medicare for All, Bill Jordan, chair of Alston and Bird’s healthcare litigation group, told Healthcare Dive. But this ruling gives Democrats another tool against Republicans, he said.

“As time has gone on, the Affordable Care Act has become more popular, not less popular,” Jordan said.

But he cautioned that anything can happen in the next election, which could entirely alter the political landscape and influence whether the case makes it back up to the Supreme Court if the justices pass this time.

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