Gov. Tom Wolf's administration said Tuesday it has formally applied to take over the operation of Pennsylvania's health insurance marketplace as the Democrat seeks a bulwark against the potential loss of health insurance subsidies for hundreds of thousands of state residents.
Wolf's Department of Insurance submitted the application to the federal government on Monday, the administration said.
A U.S. Health and Human Services Department spokesman could not immediately say whether Pennsylvania was the first or only state to take such a step ahead of a U.S. Supreme Court ruling on President Barack Obama's health care law that is due in a few weeks.
Wolf has said that he would explore this avenue beginning in 2016 in case the court rules that subsidies cannot be continued next year. However, approval from the Republican-controlled Legislature would be required for any money needed to run an exchange and potentially for the legal authority, legislative officials have said.
"I am committed to protecting hardworking Pennsylvanians from losing the assistance they rely on to purchase health care coverage," Wolf said in a statement Tuesday. "These actions do not mean that Pennsylvania must set up a state-based marketplace. However, the responsible thing to do is set up a plan to protect hundreds of thousands of people and I look forward to working with members of the Legislature to advance this plan if necessary."
The federal government currently operates Pennsylvania's marketplace. The marketplaces are a prominent feature of the 2010 federal health care law designed to extend insurance coverage to 35 million Americans. A number of states are reconsidering the exchanges they run amid financial or operational difficulties.
Plaintiffs in the lawsuit before the Supreme Court say the Obama administration is unlawfully providing subsidies to people buying health insurance in Pennsylvania and the approximately 36 other states using healthcare.gov, the online gateway to the federally run insurance marketplace.
They say the law's wording limits those subsidies to people purchasing policies on the 13 state-run insurance exchanges.
The court is expected to rule by late June.
About 473,000 Pennsylvanians had enrolled in insurance plans for 2015 sold through the marketplace, according to federal government figures. Of those, about four in five — 382,000 people — qualified for a tax credit to help cover the cost of monthly premiums. The Kaiser Family Foundation estimated last November that there could be 736,000 Pennsylvanians enrolled in subsidized marketplace plans in 2016, if the court does not void the subsidies.