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Obama Hails Health Law in Dramatic Terms Ahead of Court Ruling

By Rebecca Adams, CQ Roll Call

June 9, 2015 -- The White House and its allies are intensifying a public campaign to explain how a possible Supreme Court ruling against the president's signature health care law could strip more than 6 million people of subsidies that help them pay for medical coverage, leaving many uninsured.

At the forefront of the effort is President Barack Obama, who portrayed the law's effects in dramatic terms in a recent address to a conference of the Catholic Health Association in Washington, D.C. The administration is seeking to frame the narrative in case justices later this month rule in King v. Burwell against the law's federal subsidies, thus setting the stage to blame the high court or congressional Republicans for any resulting coverage losses. King v. Burwell is the third challenge of the health care law to come before the high court and attacks the financial underpinnings of the statute's coverage expansion.

"Many people died each year because they didn't have health insurance" before the health care law passed, Obama said. He argued that in the United States, the only industrialized nation that did not have widespread health care coverage and the one with the highest per-capita medical costs, health care should not be seen as a commodity. Instead, he said, "Health care is a fundamental right."

The message will be amplified by Health and Human Services Secretary Sylvia Mathews Burwell, who is set to testify on Wednesday before the House Ways and Means Committee. Burwell, who has been in office a year, also will appear Thursday at a national conference of the nonprofit group that led the efforts to sign people up for coverage, Enroll America. Other allies such as the liberal Center for American Progress released materials such as a new video showing how people would be hurt by an adverse ruling against the administration.

Congressional Democrats haven't always been eager to promote the law, but Democratic leaders have recently touted it.

"The fact is the Affordable Care Act is working, and we're going to continue to defend it as the American people want us to do," said Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., in remarks prepared for a floor speech.

Obama said last week that partisan criticisms of the law ignore the reality of improved coverage for Americans. He listed ways that the health care system can further be improved, including addressing the quality of medical care, bringing down costs, expanding coverage further and changing the way that care is delivered. But he reiterated that millions of people have more security than they did before the law passed.

"You'd think that it'd be time to move on. Let's figure out how to make it better," Obama said. "It seems so cynical to want to take coverage away from millions of people."

The court case takes up whether Congress intended to provide subsidies in those states that did not establish their own insurance markets but that rely on the federal health exchange The acrimonious nature of the debate over the law—and the way a ruling against subsidies could force responses by states and possibly Congress—means any decision could factor prominently in the 2016 elections.

Opposition Complaints

Critics of the law pounced on the president's remarks. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky released a statement last week questioning a comment president Obama recently made, when he said, "We haven't had a lot of conversation about the horrors of Obamacare because none of them come to pass."

McConnell's office countered with a list of 16 news stories outlining complaints about the law's effects.

McConnell is supporting a bill that Sen. Bill Cassidy, R-La., re-introduced last week to replace the health care law in case the court eliminates the subsidies.

Obama's appearance before the Catholic Health Association (CHA) put him in front of a politically important group that has disagreed with the administration on some aspects of the law, such as contraceptive coverage, but provided a full-throated defense of the overhaul.

"Many presidents tried and failed but not President Obama," said Sister Carol Keehan, CHA's president and chief executive officer.

"As long-time supporters of a health care system that works for everyone and pays special attention to those who are poor and vulnerable, we are grateful for the president's leadership" on the law, Keehan said when the group announced the address. "This important law has provided meaningful health coverage to at least 16 million people who needed and deserved it, as well as improved both the benefits and finances of Medicare and Medicaid."

The White House's publicity offensive also includes new website features outlining the history of the law and decades of efforts to reshape the health system that preceded enactment. The administration recently released new information on the state-by-state effects of the health care law.

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