Burwell recalls ‘moment of relief’ after SCOTUS ruling

Burwell recalls ‘moment of relief’ after SCOTUS ruling

More than 24 hours after hearing the Supreme Court would again uphold ObamaCare, the nation’s top health official is still emotional when she thinks about the moment she learned the decision.

“It was very emotional,” Health and Human Services Secretary Sylvia Mathews Burwell said quietly, pausing for several seconds.

One day earlier, Chief Justice John Roberts announced the Obama administration could legally hand out healthcare subsidies to people in all 50 states — striking down the law’s biggest legal threat in three years. The decision also handed Burwell a victory in the biggest battle of her term so far.

ADVERTISEMENT

As the justices were reading their opinions Thursday morning, Burwell said she was in her office reading the livestream on SCOTUSblog.com as she tried to work on a department memo on a separate screen.

"I got a little distracted,” she said. 

When she saw the words “HEALTHCARE” flash across the screen, she said, “You knew that this was it.”

She got up and walked — briskly — down the hallway of the department’s Humphrey Building office, just blocks from the Capitol, toward the room where her team was gathered.

“As I was going down the hall, I heard a cheer,” she said.

But before she started relishing the good news, she made her team triple-check the decision. Just three years ago, when the court ruled in favor of ObamaCare, the decision had been initially reported as a decision striking down the healthcare law.

“I’m like, 'Are we sure?' ” she said with a laugh, joking about her “anal retentiveness.”

For the nearly nine months since the Supreme Court announced that it would take up the case, King v. Burwell has dominated conversations about ObamaCare across Capitol Hill.

It’s also been one of the biggest issues facing Burwell in her year-long tenure at HHS.

The health chief has appeared before Congress a half-dozen times since then, facing intense exchanges with Republicans who have hoped to put the White House on the defensive on ObamaCare. In one instance, she was accused of being in "contempt of Congress" by senior Republicans because she declined to outline the White House’s plan for the case.  

About an hour after the administration won in court Thursday, Burwell was sitting in the Rose Garden to hear President Obama and Vice President Biden deliver their victory speech.

When asked Friday whether she had been concerned at all that the administration could lose the case, Burwell said she was most worried about the millions of families who may have lost their healthcare.

“It was my job and my responsibility, though, to make sure that we as a department were ready to communicate … and work with the states,” she said. “But it was just such a moment of — as I said — relief.”

In the White House, President Obama began celebrating almost instantly after learning of the decision from one of his aides.

"For one split second, the President’s face was blank as if he was trying to comprehend the news. He then reacted in jubilation," White House photographer Pete Souza wrote in a blog post on Medium, where he posted photos of the president's gleeful reaction.

Obama then made the rounds with his senior staff, exchanging a hug and a fist bump with Chief of Staff Denis McDonough.

Souza also notes an eerie coincidence in the wake of the decision. At 10:10 a.m. - the exact minute that Obama learned of the ruling - the hands of the White House clock stopped working. 

This story was updated at 6:00 p.m.