President Barack Obama's health secretary told Congress Tuesday that she has no administrative actions available to fix the "massive damage to our healthcare system" that would result should the Supreme Court invalidate federal subsidies that help millions of Americans buy healthcare coverage.
The letter from HHS Secretary Sylvia Mathews Burwell continued the administration's tough stance in its building confrontation with Republican lawmakers in advance of an expected Supreme Court decision in June.
In that case, conservatives and Republicans argue that Obama's 2010 healthcare law only provides government subsidies for people buying health coverage through marketplaces established by the states. Just 13 states established their own marketplaces, while the remaining 37 use the federal government's HealthCare.gov.
A victory by the plaintiffs could mean that people who have enrolled this year for policies through HealthCare.gov could not get subsidies. More than 8 million have enrolled, and most would qualify for aid.
In her letter to Senate Finance Committee Chairman Orrin Hatch, R-Utah, Burwell reiterated her warnings that a win for the plaintiffs would cause millions to lose health coverage because they could no longer afford it. That, in turn, would mean that disproportionately high numbers of sick, lower-earning people would continue buying health coverage, driving up health insurance costs for everyone else, she said.
"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 wrote.
For months, Burwell and other administration officials have angered GOP lawmakers by stating they have taken no steps in preparation for a Supreme Court victory by the plaintiffs.
"By admitting they have no contingency plan to assist the millions that may lose subsidies, the administration confirms how the misguided law is unworkable for the American people," Hatch said in a written statement.
By the time the court rules, Hatch and other top congressional Republicans hope to have proposals ready to protect people who now rely on the subsidies while curbing other parts of the law.
Sen. John Barrasso, R-Wyo., among those crafting a GOP response to the court case, said Burwell's letter acknowledges that Obama "does not have the authority to use administrative actions to undo the decision." Republicans have objected to past Obama administrative actions on subjects like immigration and global warming.