WASHINGTON — The Supreme Court temporarily put on hold a variety of life-saving medical procedures and critical diagnoses until it finds a way to settle conflicting lower-court rulings related to the Affordable Care Act.
Last Tuesday, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit ruled that the healthcare subsidies afforded by Obamacare do not apply to the 36 states relying on the federal insurance exchange. Hours later, a federal appeals court in Virginia reached the opposite conclusion, leaving the 4.5 million people deemed eligible for subsidies on this basis inlegal—and medical—limbo.
Peter Saunders, 63, was waiting for test results that would tell him whether he had terminal cancer when the Supreme Court issued its stay. “In cases like this, I appreciate the careful approach taken by the court. I’m prepared to wait this out, so long as my lungs are,” he murmured through a raspy cough.
“Are the subsidies legal or not—who’s to say?” asked his oncologist, Marcy Wentholm. “The law may be written in black and white, but the interpretation leaves open numerous gray areas,” she added, “much like what you can see here on Mr. Saunders’ chest scans.”
Suanders is not the only person holding his breath for the Supreme Court to remedy the legal discord. Down the hall, David Meltzer is waiting for an appendectomy that could save his life. “There’s a time to nitpick over the wording of a law whose intention is clear and a time to deal with an emergency head on. But shocking the system with a hasty, if definitive, legal judgment is in nobody’s best interest.”
Such swift treatment of the matter is not likely, as the legality of the subsidy is also before at least two other federal district courts.
Judge Thomas B. Griffith, one of the two Republican-appointed judges who ruled against the subsidies, wrote, “Our ruling will likely have significant consequences both for the millions of individuals receiving tax credits through federal exchanges and for health insurance markets more broadly. But, high as those stakes are, the principle of legislative supremacy that guides us is higher still.”
Without the subsidies, the average premium stands to rise from $82 to $364.
Said Meltzer, “I’m using the extended wait time and my severe abdominal pain to save the money I’d otherwise be using to pay for food and entertainment.” He hopes that the savings will be sufficient to cover the loss of his subsidy, should the tax credit be struck down by the courts once and for all.