Today the Supreme Court decided in favor of the government and the more than 6 million individuals who now have health coverage thanks to the Affordable Care Act’s subsidies. The 6–3 King v. Burwell decision—which determined that individuals in all states, not just those that established their own health exchanges, could be eligible for federal subsidies—is a win for President Obama, for the law more broadly, and for the health and economic security of millions of women and their families. As I described in my recent policy note, the ACA has expanded women’s access to care, improved the quality of their coverage, and in the process increased women’s economic security. Today’s decision ensures that—for the time being—the law will continue to do all of those things and more.
The ACA expanded coverage to 16.5 million people and elevated the floor of coverage for women. Since 2010, 8.7 million women have gained maternity coverage; 48.5 million women with private insurance can access preventive services with no cost-sharing; and as many as 65 million women are no longer charged higher premiums based on pre-existing conditions. In 2013, the number of women who filled their birth control prescriptions without co-pays grew from 1.3 million to 5.1 million, and the share of women who had access to birth control with no out-of-pocket costs grew from 14 percent to 56 percent. This has been a significant improvement over the pre-ACA system in which women had to pay out of pocket for preventive services like pap smears and breast exams, were routinely charged more than men, and many couldn’t afford maternity coverage during pregnancy.
Over the past five years the ACA has begun to ease the financial burdens of health coverage and care for women, who are more likely than men to live in poverty. Today more than two-thirds of low-wage workers are women—half of them women of color—and many work long hours with no health benefits. Wage inequality causes Black and Latina women to lose approximately $19,000 and $23,279 a year, respectively. A loss of subsidies would have been especially harmful to women of color, who represent nearly half of all uninsured women eligible for tax credits in states using the federal exchange. Those subsidies are the only path to insurance for 1.1 million Black women, approximately 2 million Latinas, nearly a quarter-million Asian women, and more than 100,000 Native American women. Many of those women live in one of three states: Florida, Georgia, or Texas.
When women have good coverage and access to care, they are better able to make decisions about the timing and size of their families. They are able to prevent illnesses that cause them to miss work force them to lose a paycheck, and threaten their employment. They have healthier babies and children. Fewer out-of-pocket medical costs free up more money for food, childcare, education, housing, transportation, and savings. Health coverage won’t singlehandedly solve the serious challenges facing low-income women and families. Indeed, our country’s soaring inequality and persistent injustices demand sweeping social and economic reforms. But without the very basic ability to care for their bodies, visit a doctor, plan the timing and size of their families, and make independent reproductive health decisions, women will never be able to take full advantage of other economic opportunities.
Today’s decision is especially important for women considering conservative lawmakers’ relentless attempts to roll back access to reproductive health care. Consider that just yesterday House Republicans voted to completely eliminate Title X (the federal family planning program), to expand religious exemptions allowing employers and insurers to opt out of covering anything they find morally or religiously objectionable, to implement new abortion restrictions with no exception for the life or health of pregnant women, and to renew the Hyde Amendment, which prohibits Medicaid coverage of abortion.
So the ACA is safe for now, and the Supreme Court’s ruling will allow the law to become even more ingrained in our social and political fabric. However, we can be sure the vitriolic political opposition is not over. The GOP presidential hopefuls didn’t waste any time letting their constituents know today’s decision wouldn’t stop their attempts to undermine the law. And conservative lawmakers on the Hill will continue to push budget proposals that would unravel the law’s most important components and reduce funding for social programs critical to the wellbeing of low-income families. We should celebrate the King v. Burwelldecision, but we must not stop making the case that for women and families, comprehensive, affordable health coverage—and by extension, care—is as much a matter of health as it is economic security.