At first blush, a federal appeals court’s decision on Tuesday that dealt what many considered to be a near” fatal blow” to the Affordable Care Act could also appear to be a blow to Republicans’ hopes for retaking the Senate in November.
Obamacare supporters are enraged. The decision in Halbig v. Burwell, which invalidated the federal government’s ability to provide subsidies for those Americans who purchased insurance through a federal health insurance exchange, could mean a major increase in premium rates for more than half of the 8 million who enrolled in ACA plans.
The appeals court ruled that, as written, only those who purchased insurance through state-level exchanges can access federal financial support. “That would invalidate an Internal Revenue Service regulation that tried to sort out confusing wording in the law by concluding that Congress intended for consumers in all 50 states to have subsidized coverage,” the Associated Press reported. 36 states declined to establish their own exchanges, preferring instead to use the federal exchange.
The law’s design was no accident. The ACA was constructed with the aim of encouraging states to establish their own exchanges. Even Vox.com accurately describes the incentive structure in place: “If a state set up its own exchange, its citizens would receive subsidies. If the state didn’t, its citizens wouldn’t.”
It stands to reason that ACA supporters would enthusiastically oppose this decision and express that enthusiasm at the ballot box in November. However, at second glance, it seems more likely that Republican voters will be motivated by this development.
Why? Consider that Democrats are likely to breathe a sigh of relief when the “nuclear option,” advanced by Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-NV) and passed along party lines, saves Obamacare’s bacon.
— Jeffrey Toobin (@JeffreyToobin) July 22, 2014
Reid's nuclear option, which put 3 new Obama-appt judges on the DC Circuit, could save Obamacare.
— Sahil Kapur (@sahilkapur) July 22, 2014
The Obama administration confirmed on Tuesday that they plan to pursue this remedy. The White House added that, in spite of this court ruling, federal subsidies will continue to be provided to those who enrolled through federal exchanges. Meanwhile, ruling on a similar case on Tuesday, the Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals came to the opposite conclusion as the D.C. appeals court citing “Congress’s clear intent.”
For Democrats, nothing has changed. For Republicans, however, the reviled health care reform law is back on the ballot.
It is hard to think of a more galvanizing development for conservatives than a panel of judges rescuing Obamacare from its own fatal flaws only as a result of Senate Democrats’ maneuver aimed at limiting minority Republicans’ rights.
That is, on a macro level, where Republicans will benefit from this ruling. But there are also state-specific factors resulting from this development which can help advance individual Republican candidates’ electoral prospects.
For example, take the state of Oregon.
The federal government awarded Oregon $10 million to set up its own exchange, but that problematic web portal was a chronic disaster. All the Beaver State had to show for their investments were a series of laughably bad, folk art themed enrollment advertisements which were mocked even by ACA supporters.
Cover Oregon and the Oregon Health Authority spent a total of $248 million to create a website that never worked. In the end, the state scrapped the exchange and elected to use the federal government’s exchange portal instead. Now, those consumers who purchased insurance through that exchange face the terrifying prospect of their formerly cheap insurance growing prohibitively expensive.
Enter Republican Senate candidate Monica Wehby. She faces an uphill battle in her bid to unseat Sen. Jeff Merkley (D-OR) in the fall. The GOP standard-bearer, a pediatric neurosurgeon, raised just half of what her opponent raked in during 2014’s second quarter. The state’s Democratic-leaning electorate, predisposed already to support the incumbent, would require a major incentive to support Merkley’s challenger which previously did not exist.
That incentive may have just arrived in the form of Halbig. The Republican firm Harper Polling found in April that a majority of Oregonians disapprove of the ACA and Halbig is only likely to put Merkley in the uncomfortable position of defending an unpopular law. A law which now provides many of his state’s health care consumers with insurance they know they will not be able to afford.
That is a story that will be repeated in battleground states all over the country. When pollsters begin to ask voters just how likely they are to vote in the coming midterms after Labor Day, expect nearly every conservative-leaning voter to reply with an emphatic, “Very.”