WASHINGTON – A federal judge Wednesday unequivocally rejected a last-ditch challenge by conservatives to President Obama’s healthcare law, ruling that the Affordable Care Act allows low-income Americans to get government subsidies to buy health coverage no matter what state they live in.
The case is Halbig v. Sebelius, U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia, No. 1:13-cv-623.
A ruling in favor of a lawsuit brought by individuals and businesses in Kansas, Missouri, Tennessee, Texas, West Virginia and Virginia would have crippled the implementation of the law by making health insurance unaffordable for many people.
The law’s critics argued that the statute, passed by Congress in 2010, limited these subsidies to consumers in states that operate their own insurance marketplaces. Only 14 states do that; the remaining 36 rely on the federal government to run their marketplaces, or exchanges.
The marketplaces opened Oct. 1 for 2014 coverage, and are designed to allow Americans who do not get coverage through an employer to shop among plans that must meet new basic standards. The subsidies, in the form of tax credits, are available to people with annual incomes of up to 400 percent of the federal poverty level, or $94,200 for a family of four.
In his ruling, U.S. District Judge Paul Friedman in Washington D.C. wrote that Congress clearly intended to make the subsidies available nationwide under the 2010 Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act.
“There is evidence throughout the statute of Congress’s desire to ensure broad access to affordable health coverage,” the judge wrote.
In 2012 the U.S. Supreme Court upheld a requirement of the law, commonly called Obamacare, that most Americans buy health insurance or pay a tax penalty.
The law aims to provide health coverage to millions of uninsured or under-insured Americans by offering private insurance at federally subsidized rates through new online health insurance marketplaces in all 50 states and in Washington, D.C.
A spokeswoman for the Justice Department, which is defending the law, said officials were pleased with the decision.
The law is considered Obama’s signature domestic policy achievement. His administration’s flawed rollout of the HealthCare.gov website in October drew sharp criticism from both opponents and supporters of the law.
Republican lawmakers and conservatives strongly opposed the law, saying it represented an overreach by the federal government.
Three similar suits are still pending before other judges around the country.