- - Friday, November 14, 2014

Sylvia Mathews Burwell, the secretary of health and human services, is headed to Tampa, Fla., on Monday to celebrate open enrollment for Obamacare, which began Saturday. Obamacare has made it to its first birthday, but it has no guarantee to see its second.

The Congressional Budget Office predicted that 13 million Americans would rush to Healthcare.gov, or visit the equivalent state-run website, between now and Feb. 15. Everyone knows now that won’t happen. The department has cut expectations in half. Obamacare continues to disappoint everyone, even the most fervent boosters, who still can’t admit it.

Unlike her predecessor, Mrs. Burwell has kept a relatively low profile. In her previous job as head of the Office of Management and Budget, she ordered the National Zoo to unplug the popular “Panda Cam” that lets visitors watch the antics of Mei Xiang and Tian Tian, the giant pandas on loan from China. She wanted to make the point that the mean old Republicans had shut down the government, so nobody could have panda fun.

Her name recognition comes from her place of prominence on the Supreme Court docket. She’s the headline act for all the disputes over the president’s health-care takeover — King v. Burwell, Burwell v. Hobby Lobby, Halbig v. Burwell, and many others. The Supreme Court has agreed to hear King v. Burwell in March, and take court’s second shot at the issue.

The justices selected the case that represents the greatest peril to the law’s continued existence. At stake is whether the words of the law mean what they say, that only insurance exchanges run by states — not by the feds — are eligible for federal subsidies. A loss for the White House would eliminate the subsidies for about 4 million Obamacare enrollees in the 34 states that chose not to set up their own exchanges.

Without the subsidies, there’s no point to Obamacare. Premiums are higher, and people have lost their favorite doctors and the health plans they wanted to keep. Now the insurance risk pools would shrink, and rates would soar. The public, which has had enough of Obamacare — and said so loud and clear on Nov. 4 — would cry more fervently for repeal.

The bad news for Mrs. Burwell is that Chief Justice John G. Roberts Jr. can hardly reimagine this deceitfully drafted law a second time. Calling a “penalty” a “tax,” as Chief Justice Roberts did in his earlier rescue, is a stretch — but not an altogether crazy one. In this case, the chief justice would have to repeal the English language to say the federal government and the states are one in the same, much like insisting that 2 plus 2 equal 5. That is altogether crazy. Mrs. Burwell may not want to book her flight yet for next year’s Obamacare anniversary parties.

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