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Challengers of a key provision of the Obama healthcare law Thursday asked the U.S. Supreme Court to take up the case and decide quickly whether people who buy their health insurance on state exchanges qualify for a federal subsidy.

Two federal courts reached opposite conclusions on that issue last week. On Thursday, the challengers who lost asked the Supreme Court to step in.

"Millions of people have no idea if they may rely on the IRS’s promise to subsidize their health coverage, or if that money will be clawed back. Employers in 36 states have no idea if they will be penalized under the ACA’s employer mandate, or are effectively exempt from it," wrote Michael Carvin, the Washington, D.C., lawyer representing the challengers, in a petition filed with the court.

"Insurers have no idea if their customers will pay for health coverage in which they enrolled, or if large numbers will default. And the Treasury has no idea if billions of dollars being spent each month were authorized by Congress, or if these expenditures are illegal."

The Obamacare law clearly says insurance bought through the state exchanges qualifies for the federal subsidy. But the law is ambiguous about whether the subsidies are also available for insurance bought on the federal exchange.

A federal appeals court in Washington said the answer is no. But another federal appeals court in Richmond, Virginia, said yes.

The Justice Department said last week it would ask the full court of appeals in Washington to review the ruling that went against the administration. Only 14 states now have health exchanges up and running. Nearly five-million low-income Americans got their insurance on the federal exchange.


- Pete Williams