There was one thing that supporters and detractors of former President Barack Obama's health care overhaul agreed on for years: unpopular fines on Americans forgoing coverage were essential for the plan to work because they nudged healthy people to get insured, helping check premiums.
Now it turns out that might not be so.
Numbers released this week by the government show just a slight dip in the number of people enrolled in Affordable Care Act coverage next year through HealthCare.gov. That's the case even though the Republican-led Congress repealed fines for being uninsured effective Jan. 1. The drop — from 8.8 million to 8.5 million — was far less than experts forecast.
The numbers are likely to change policymakers' understanding of how the law actually works. That may affect the government's stewardship of its health insurance marketplaces for people not covered on their jobs. It could also undercut a Texas federal court case in which a Republican-appointed judge recently declared the Affordable Care Act unconstitutional since the fines no longer exist.
A look at why the long-debated penalties might not matter so much and how that could affect the future of the law: