The Operation Was a Success…

Plutarch, Greek historian of some 1,900 years ago, told the story of Pyrrhus, king of Epirus, and his victory over the Roman army at Asculum in 279 B.C.E.

Plutarch told about a friend of Pyrrhus’s, a great orator named Cineas. Before Pyrrhus led his armies into battle against Rome, Cineas asked him, “The Romans, sir, are reported to be great warriors and conquerors of many warlike nations; if we overcome them, how should we use our victory?”

“You ask,” said Pyrrhus, “a thing evident of itself. The Romans once conquered, there is neither Greek nor barbarian city that will resist us, but we shall presently be masters of all Italy…”

Cineas persisted in his questioning, with Pyrrhus listing victory after victory that would be theirs.

“And what shall we do then?”

Pyrrhus answered, smiling, “We will live at our ease, my dear friend…”

Pyrrhus indeed defeated the Romans at Asculum, killing 6,000 of their men. But the victory cost Pyrrhus 3,500 men, including many of his generals and closest friends.

When someone came to congratulate Pyrrhus on his victory, the king replied, “One more such victory and Pyrrhus is undone.”

This story gave us the phrase, “Pyrrhic victory” — a costly, ruinous victory.

Republicans on the battlefield to defeat Obamacare may be about to achieve just such a victory.

The criticisms and defenses of the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act — commonly known as “Obamacare” — are well known. The law itself, which fills 900 pages of legalese, is a magnum opus of obscurity. Opponents of the law have demonized it as financial and social evil incarnate.

In 2012, the Supreme Court declared Obamacare constitutional, and required all Americans to carry health insurance or pay a penalty, ruling the penalty a “tax.” This left opponents to seek legal maneuvers to take the teeth out of the law.

Finally, victory is on the horizon. A Supreme Court decision could wipe away health insurance for millions of Americans when it resolves the latest fight over Obamacare. But there is a huge caveat. The victory would take away health benefits from millions of people. This raises a life-and-death question: However bad Obamacare may be, undoing it now would leave many who need it most without any health care insurance. Should the justices even consider such consequences?

By month’s end, the court is expected to decide a challenge to the way subsidies, in the form of tax credits, are given to people who get their insurance through the Affordable Care Act. The legal issue is whether Congress authorized payments regardless of where people live, or only to residents of states that established their own insurance exchanges.

The issue hinges on four words in the 900-page law. Whether or not it was a slip of the pen, the law clearly states that health exchanges providing healthcare must be “established by the state.”

The sticking point is that more than two-thirds of the states did not set up their own exchanges. In those states, people rely on the federal healthcare.gov site to sign up for insurance.

Does the fact that people signed up with the federal website and not with the states disqualify their insurance? Technically, it might. But if the court rules that the subsidies can’t be given to people who enrolled on the federal site, 7 million to 9 million Americans will have no health insurance.

Sticklers and zealous opponents of Obamacare say that the court should look only at what Congress actually wrote into the law, not what it might have intended. The law is the law.

Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia says that it’s not his job to correct Congress’s bad work. “Garbage in, garbage out,” he has said.

Justice Stephen Breyer, on the other hand, has said Scalia’s approach is too limiting because a law’s words sometimes are not clear enough to resolve a case, especially when read in isolation. Context matters, and the real-world consequences of a law are part of that context, Breyer has said.

Republican opponents of Obamacare are not oblivious to the possible effect of pulling the plug on millions of people depending on its benefits. They are scrambling to find stopgap solutions to provide temporary aid.

Donald Stewart, spokesman for Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.), said GOP leaders have been working toward “a responsible approach to protect families” from the health care law. He said the meeting with Republican senators would be “the latest in a series of briefings with our members.”

The question of the hour is, at what cost victory? If the Republicans are victorious in defeating the forces of Obamacare, will it be a Pyrrhic victory?

Or, to put it in medical terms, will it be a case of “The operation was a success, but the patient died”?

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