York: GOP looks for way to keep Obamacare subsidies

Byron York

What happens if Republicans win the Supreme Court case against Obamacare? They might end up like the dog that caught the car.

This week the court will hear oral arguments in King v. Burwell, the case challenging the payment of Obamacare subsidies through the federal exchanges. If the justices bar the payment of subsidies through those exchanges, it would be both a victory for the health law’s critics and a problem for congressional Republicans.

Which is why a Senate GOP working group has been meeting for months to figure out what to do should the challenge to Obamacare succeed.

It’s a difficult problem on several fronts. Even in a victory scenario, nobody knows just what the court will do. Would subsidies stop immediately? After some period of time? Republican lawmakers don’t know.

Nobody knows what will follow. Health and Human Services Secretary Sylvia Mathews Burwell told Republicans the administration has no “Plan B” should Obamacare lose in court. “We know of no administrative actions that could, and therefore we have no plans that would, undo the massive damage to our health care system that would be caused by an adverse decision,” Burwell told the GOP.

So Republicans are working on their own plan. “We’re committed to helping the people who have been hurt by the health care law,” said Republican Sen. John Barrasso, leader of the working group. “We’re not going to help the law, but we’re going to help the people, so they are not left in the lurch.”

What that means is Republicans are going to find a way to continue paying subsidies to the estimated 7.5 million Americans who receive taxpayer-funded help to pay their insurance premiums through the federal Obamacare exchange.

The prospect of seeing those people lose their subsidies is just too much for Republican lawmakers to risk.

“We’re worried about ads saying cancer patients are being thrown out of treatment, and Obama will be saying all Congress has to do is fix a typo,” said one senior GOP aide involved in the work. In polling for the conservative group Independent Women’s Voice, a huge majority of respondents said it would be important to “do something to restore the subsidies.”

Hill Republicans fear such a scenario would create huge pressure on Republican governors, who originally declined to create Obamacare exchanges in their states, to change course and set up state exchanges. The result could ultimately be an Obamacare that is even more firmly rooted and difficult to repeal than it is now.

To avoid all that, GOP lawmakers have decided to keep the money flowing. Maybe the payments won’t be called subsidies, but they will be subsidies. The essence of Obamacare — government subsidizing the purchase of health insurance premiums — will remain intact.

For those conservatives who don’t like the idea of Obamacare as a new entitlement, who worry that it is furthering a sense of dependency on government — well, that is going to continue, no matter what happens in King v. Burwell.

Byron York is chief political correspondent for the Washington Examiner.