Supreme Court Will Decide Whether Citizens in NC and 26 Other States Can Receive Tax Credits for Health Care Premiums!!
With a decision that, I can only imagine, ricocheted against the White House walls, the Supreme Court granted certiorari to hear King v. Burwell this past Friday, November 7, 2014, despite Obama’s administration’s request for the Supreme Court to postpone granting certiorari in order to wait for a D.C. circuit to re-visit an opinion, the Halbig ruling.
The Supreme Court’s decision in King could, potentially, have devastating consequences on the Affordable Care Act (ACA). However, I write that last sentence with an asterisk. Journalists across the country are entitling articles, “Obamacare Is Doomed! Everybody Panic!”, “The Supreme Court Might Gut Obamacare. Your State Could Save It,” and “Obamacare vs. Supreme Court.” These titles to articles are misleading, at best, and factually incorrect, at worst. King v. Burwell is actually not an attack on the ACA. But I will explain later…
First of all, what the heck is certiorari…or “cert”, as many attorneys call it?
A writ of certiorari is actually an order from a higher court to a lower court demanding a record in a case so that the higher court may review the lower court’s decision. A writ of certiorari is the instrument most used by the Supreme Court to review cases. The Supreme Court hears such a small, minute fraction of lawsuits that when the Supreme Court “grants cert,” it is a big deal.
I have written in the past about these same two appellate court cases, which were both published July 22, 2014, within hours of one another, regarding the Health Care Premium Subsidies Section of the Affordable Care Act. These two cases yield polar opposite holdings. In Halbig v. Burwell, the D.C. Circuit Court found that the clear language of the ACA only allows the health care premium subsidies in states that created their own state-run health care exchanges, i.e, residents in NC along with 35 other states would not be eligible for the subsidies. See my blog: Halbig: Court Holds Clear Language of the ACA Prohibits Health Care Subsidies in Federally-Run Exchanges.
Juxtapose the 4th Circuit Court’s decision in King v. Burwell, which held that “For reasons explained below, we find that the applicable statutory language is ambiguous and subject to multiple interpretations. Applying deference to the IRS’s determination, however, we uphold the rule as a permissible exercise of the agency’s discretion.”
So the two cases came to two entirely different conclusions. Halbig: ACA is clear; King: ACA is ambiguous.
Well, for everyone else, that is as clear….as mud.
When the D.C. court decided Halbig, it was not an en banc decision. In English, this means that the entire bench of judges in the D. C. Circuit did not hear the case, only a panel of three (which is the usual way for a case to be heard on appeal to a federal circuit). The Obama administration, along with other proponents of the ACA, hoped that the U.S. Supreme Court would deny cert to King until the D.C. court could re-visit its decision, this time en banc.
Yet, this past Friday, the Supreme Court opted to consider King v. Burwell.
The sole issue to be decided is: Whether the Internal Revenue Service may permissibly promulgate regulations to extend tax-credit subsidies to coverage purchased through exchanges established by the federal government under Section 1321 of the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act.
How is King v. Burwell NOT an attack on the ACA?
The plaintiffs in King are not asking the Supreme Court to strike down the ACA, even, in part. They are asking the Court to uphold the plain language of the ACA by holding that the IRS’s interpretation of the ACA is erroneous. Let me explain…
Section 1311 directs states to establish exchanges, and Section 1321 directs the federal government to establish exchanges “within” any state that opts to not set up its own state-run exchange, e.g., NC.
Section 1401 authorizes subsidies for people whose household income falls between 100 and 400% of the federal poverty level, who are not eligible for qualified employer coverage or other government programs, and who enroll in coverage “through an Exchange established by the State.” (emphasis added). These 3 criteria are crystal clear based on the plain language of the statute.
The statute makes no provision for subsidies in states that opt not to create their own exchange but, instead, allow the federal government to create an exchange within its state.
The ACA was intended to create penalties if the states do not establish their own exchanges. For example, the subsidies are not allowed to citizens of states without state-created exchanges.
In August 2011, the IRS issued a proposed rule [add link] announcing it would provide tax credits (and implement the resulting penalties) in states with federal exchanges, too. IRS officials later admitted to Congress that they knew the statute did not authorize them to issue tax credits through federal exchanges…Oops…
The proposed rule received much negative feedback based on the fact that the IRS appeared to have no statutory basis for the rule. Nonetheless, the proposed rule was finalized in May 2012, and lawsuits ensued…
Oklahoma began the litigation with Pruitt v. Burwell in September 2012. In September 2014, a federal district court held that the plain language of the ACA does not allow subsidies in states with federally-run exchanges. In May 2013, Halbig v. Burwell was filed, and in September 2013, King v. Burwell was filed.
So, much to the contrary of popular belief, these lawsuits are not “against the ACA” or “proving the unconstitutionality of the ACA.” Instead, these lawsuits are “against” the IRS interpreting the ACA to allow tax credits for all states, even if the state has a federally-run exchange.
Will it negatively impact the ACA if the plaintiffs win? That would be a resounding yes.
Oral argument could be as soon as March 2015.
A lawsuit that could come out as early as tomorrow could be catastrophic for the Affordable Care Act (ACA) in as many as 36 states and impact approximately 5.4 million Americans.
In so many ways, in the last year or so, the all-changing, great and powerful ACA that promised affordable health care for all and “if you like your health care coverage, you can keep it,” has fallen monumentally short of its original, lofty promises.
In a way, we all wanted to believe in the promises of the ACA, like Dorothy in “The Wizard of Oz.” Who can forget the disappointed sigh Dorothy expels when Toto pulls back the curtain of the Great and Powerful Oz only to see a mundane, elderly man with absolutely no super powers or means to grant her wishes. Dorothy wanted Oz to be real. She wanted desperately for Oz to be as Great and Powerful as he proclaimed. However, in reality, he was not.
Like Dorothy wanted Oz to be real, we all wanted the ACA to create an affordable, nationwide health care system…this health care utopia.
So many lofty promises of the ACA have already been crushed, either by the Supreme Court’s decision that allows states to opt-out of Medicaid expansion, or by President Obama himself in executive actions, including an action delaying the employee mandate.
The courts may deflate the illusions of grandeur of the ACA even more with an upcoming and anxiously awaited decision. The case of Halbig v. Burwell, a D.C. Court of Appeals case, has concerned citizens everywhere, who wait on bated breath for a ruling. Halbig could have a huge (negative) impact on health care premiums. Halbig could be the Toto that pulled back the curtain on the ACA.
Let me explain:
There is a subsection of the ACA that allows high insurance premium tax credits, in an effort to make premiums more affordable for low-income families. The subsection applies to individuals who make less than $46,075. In implementing the ACA, it was contemplated that those individuals who make under $46,075 will have difficulty affording the insurance premiums; therefore, the ACA gives nice, large tax credits to offset the costs of premiums.
However, according to the plain language of the statute, these tax credits only apply to those individuals enrolled “through an exchange established by the state.” (emphasis added). Yet two-thirds (or 36) of the states did not establish state-run health care exchanges (including NC). Instead, these states relied on the federal exchange, in part, to avoid additional cost expenditures.
Here is a map of states according to whether it is expanding Medicaid:
The Halbig case asks the question: Can people living in states run by a federal health exchange reap the benefit of tax credits intended for those people participating in an exchange run by the state?
If the Halbig Court takes that stance that the statute is not ambivalent and must be followed exactly as it is written, then millions of Americans will become ineligible for the tax credits for health care premiums, because they will not be enrolled in a state-run exchange. Premiums would sky-rocket and many Americans would be unable to afford health care…again. It is estimated that without the tax credits, the health care premiums will cost 4x as much.
Interestingly, the Internal Revenue Service (IRS) weighed in and issued a highly-contested rule authorizing the federal exchange to issue tax credits. Amidst all the tomfoolery about the IRS targeting 501(c) charities owned by the Tea Party, it is surprising, at least to me, that the IRS would issue such a contentious ruling in favor of the ACA and anti-conservatives.
Hence, the Halbig case, in which Plaintiffs argue that the IRS has exceeded its statutory authority in issuing tax credits to those residing in states with federal exchanges, when the ACA clearly states that the tax credits only apply to state-run exchanges.
If the D.C. Court of Appeals sides in favor of the Plaintiffs, the following could occur:
• Residents of 36 states could pay health care premiums 4x more than promised;
• The ACA would fall short of promises…again;
• The IRS will have exceeded its authority to benefit Democrats…again;
• People may not be able to afford the health care premiums;
• The ACA could risk the downfall of many more promises.
We all wanted the ACA to create health care utopia. We all wanted the Great and Powerful Oz to be Great and Powerful.
But the courts may tell us we just can’t say, “Pay no attention to the man behind the curtain!!”