US Supreme Court hears attack on Obamacare as COVID-19 pandemic widens

The high court opened arguments in the long-brewing case over the constitutionality of the 2010 Affordable Care Act, under which then-president Barack Obama's government sought to extend health insurance to people who could not afford it.

FILE: A demonstrator holds a sign in front of the US Supreme Court in Washington, DC, on 10 November 2020 as the high court opened arguments in the long-brewing case over the constitutionality of the 2010 Affordable Care Act. Picture: AFP.

WASHINGTON - President Donald Trump's outgoing administration took aim in the US Supreme Court Tuesday at razing the "Obamacare" health program his predecessor built, a move which could cancel the health insurance of millions in the middle of the COVID-19 pandemic.

The high court opened arguments in the long-brewing case over the constitutionality of the 2010 Affordable Care Act, under which then-president Barack Obama's government sought to extend health insurance to people who could not afford it.

Protestors gathered outside the court ahead of the hearing opposing any move to strike down the ACA, the risk of which was increased after Trump named three conservative justices to the high court over the past four years.

But without any replacement plan prepared by the Trump administration, the impact of doing so could be devastating to 20 million Americans who would likely lose their insurance coverage.

Under ACA, poor adults have access to the Medicare program normally open only to retired people over 65; young people 26 years old or less can be covered by their parents' insurance; and people whose preexisting medical conditions led to their being denied commercial health insurance have coverage.

"Health care is a human right," protestors chanted outside the court before the hearing.

BIDEN TO SPEAK

Since taking office in 2017, Trump has tried to undermine the ACA.

His government first eroded one key provision through legislation, the "individual mandate" which requires people who stay uninsured and refuse to sign up for the ACA to pay a penalty.

Congress reduced the penalty to zero, and now, in a lawsuit filed by Texas and several other Republican-led states, they want the Supreme Court to declare the entire ACA unconstitutional, arguing it cannot stand without the individual mandate.

The legal challenge comes during the COVID-19 pandemic which has seen more than 10 million Americans infected with the virus.

It also comes a week after Trump's bid for a second term was defeated at the polls by Democrat Joe Biden, who was Obama's vice president when the ACA was passed and who has pledged to improve the cumbersome program.

Biden was due to deliver an address on the ACA after the hearing Tuesday in his home base of Wilmington, Delaware.

As much as he has attacked the ACA, trying to cut related budgets and services, Trump has not yet offered alternatives that would cover those losing insurance if the law is struck down.

"Obamacare will be replaced with a MUCH better, and FAR cheaper, alternative if it is terminated in the Supreme Court," Trump claimed by tweet in September.

FOCUS ON BARRETT

While Obamacare has proven popular, it stands at risk on technical legal grounds, at a Supreme Court which has turned sharply to the right since Trump came to power.

In 2012 the court voted, 5-4, to uphold the law as constitutional. Chief Justice John Roberts, a moderate conservative, sided with the court's four liberals to decide the case.

But since then Trump has named three new justices, all conservatives. That, even without Roberts' vote, gives them five votes out of nine.

All eyes will be on the newest justice, Amy Coney Barrett, whose appointment Trump rushed through in October, saying he wanted her in position to help decide any election cases as well as the ACA case.

When still a law professor, she criticized Roberts' reasoning in the 2012 decision to uphold the ACA.

She was pressed intensely by Democrats during her Senate confirmation hearings last month on her view of the program and Trump's expectations of her.

"I'm not hostile to the ACA," she said. "I made no promises to anyone. I don't have any agenda."

Whatever the court decides, it won't likely be known until next year, possibly after Trump leaves office and Biden is president on 20 January.

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