Have you ever said something that you immediately wished you could put back in your mouth? I know I have! In fact, just recently, I was eating lunch with my husband and one of our closest friends Josh. Josh, his wife, Tracey, my husband Scott and I ride horses together almost every weekend. Our daughters come with us, and it’s a fun family event. So, I should have known that a manger is a tool used in barns to hold the hay for the horses to eat, not just baby Jesus’ bed.
Josh tells me that he is going to pick up a manger. To which I respond, “Josh, why do you need a baby manger?” If words came out of your mouth on a string, I would have grabbed that string and shoved it back into my mouth. Of course, my husband had no end to his ribbing. “Josh, why do they sell baby mangers in Tractor Supply?” And “Baby Jesus was so lucky that someone put a manger in that barn for when he was born.”
At that point, I would have liked to claim that I had a “speak-o.” You know, like a typo, but for speech.
At least this is what Jonathan Gruber has claimed…that he made a speak-o in 2012.
Jonathan Gruber is one of the architects of the Affordable Care Act (ACA). He drafted much of the language included in the ACA. After the ACA was passed, Gruber was interviewed by a number of journalists regarding specific sections of the ACA. One of the sections on which he spoke was the section that allowed for health care premium subsidies for people enrolled in the program who reside in states which created state-run health care exchanges as opposed to states that opted to use the federal exchange. For ease of this blog, I will call this ACA section the “Health Care Premium Subsidies Section.”
As I am sure you are aware if you follow my blog, two appellate court cases came out July 22, 2014, regarding the Health Care Premium Subsidies Section, with 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.”
The two cases were released within hours of each other and came to two entirely different conclusions. Halbig: ACA is clear; King: ACA is ambiguous.
Interesting to note is that D.C. is not a state, and the 4th Circuit clearly embraces five states.
In my Halbig blog, I explain the legal analysis of statutory interpretation. I also explain that based on my reading of the Health Care Premium Subsidies Section, I tend to side with the D.C. courts and opine that the Section is not ambiguous.
If, however, a court finds that the statutory language is ambiguous, the court defers to the agency’s interpretation “so long as it is based on a permissible construction of the statute,” which is clear case law found in the 4th Circuit.
Therefore, once the 4th Circuit determined that the statute is ambiguous, the court made the correct determination to defer to the IRS’ ruling that all states could benefit from the subsidies.
Yet another approach to statutory interpretation is considering the legislative intent. The courts may attempt to evaluate legislative intent when the statute is ambiguous. In order to discern legislative intent, courts may weigh proposed bills, records of hearing on the bill, amendments to the bill, speeches and floor debate, legislative subcommittee minutes, and/or published statements from the legislative body as to the intent of the statute.
Recently, some journalists have uncovered 2012 interviews with Gruber during which he states that the Health Care Premium Subsidies Section was drafted intentionally to induce the states to create their own health care subsidies and not rely on the federal exchange. How’s that for intent?
The exact language of that part of the 2012 interview is as follows:
Interviewer: “You mentioned the health information [sic] Exchanges for the states, and it is my understanding that if states don’t provide them, then the federal government will provide them for the states.”
Gruber: “I think what’s important to remember politically about this is if you’re a state and you don’t set up an Exchange, that means your citizens don’t get the tax credits… I hope that’s a blatant enough political reality that states will get their act together and realize there are billions of dollars at stake here in setting up these Exchanges, and that they’ll do it.”
What do you think? You think Gruber is pretty explicit as to legislative intent? Well, at least in 2012….
In 2014, Gruber states, as to his 2012 comment, “I honestly don’t remember why I said that. I was speaking off-the-cuff. It was just a mistake. People make mistakes. Congress made a mistake drafting the law and I made a mistake talking about it.”
According to Gruber, Congress made a typo; Gruber made a speak-o.
“It’s unambiguous that it’s a typo,” Gruber tells reporter Chris Matthews from NBC and MSNBC.
Um…a typo when the statement is spoken? Hence, the new word “speak-o” blowing up Twitter.
If Gruber’s statement was truly a speak-o, it was a re-occurring speak-o. Gruber also made two speeches in which he listed three possible threats to the implementation of Obamacare. In both cases the third “threat” was that states would not set up exchanges and, instead, would rely on the federal government.
I anticipate that Gruber’s 2012 and contrary 2014 statements will be at issue as these cases, Halbig and King, move forward.
As for me, I would like to invoke my own speak-o’s. I can only imagine how I will be received when I appear before a court and say, “Your Honor, I apologize. That was a speak-o.”
Halbig: Court Holds Clear Language of the ACA Prohibits Health Care Subsidies in Federally-Run Exchanges
Remember my post, “The Great and Powerful ACA: Are High, Inflated Premiums Hiding Behind the Curtain?” I warned of the possible consequences of Halbig v. Burwell…and it happened.
Halbig v. Burwell was decided earlier today.
The Halbig court held that the Internal Revenue Service (IRS) went too far in extending subsidies to those who buy insurance through the federally run, Healthcare.gov website.
The Halbig court ruled that the subsection of the ACA that allows high insurance premium tax credits, according to the plain language of the statute, only applies to those individuals enrolled “through an exchange established by the state.” (emphasis added). Therefore, if Halbig is upheld on en banc review by the D. C. Circuit (see below) or on appeal to the U. S. Supreme Court, residents who reside in two-thirds (or 36) of the states that did not establish state-run health care exchanges (including NC), will not benefit from the health care subsidies.
Looking at the decision through a purely objective, legal lens, I believe the federal court of appeals is correct in its ruling. I also agree that the ruling will have drastic and devastating consequences for the ACA and the people who would have benefited from the health care subsidies.
However, the law governing statutory construction and interpretation is clear. Statutory interpretation is the process by which courts interpret legislation.
For years, the U.S. Supreme Court has been explicit on statutory interpretation. “We begin with the familiar canon of statutory construction that the starting point for interpreting a statute is the language of the statute itself. Absent a clearly expressed legislative intention to the contrary, that language must ordinarily be regarded as conclusive.” Consumer Product Safety Commission et al. v. GTE Sylvania, Inc. et al., 447 U.S. 102 (1980).
In other words, if the words of a statute are unambiguous, then the statutory interpretation ends. The clear words of the statute must be followed.
Let me give an example of ambiguous language:
A magazine printed the following: “Rachel Ray enjoys cooking her family and her dogs.” If that were true, Rachel Ray’s family and dogs would be very upset. I am sure what the editor meant to write was “Rachel Ray enjoys cooking, her family, and her dogs.”
It is amazing how important a comma is.
The Halbig court held that the section of the ACA allowing health care subsidies only apply to those enrolled in an exchange established by the state is not ambivalent. Thus, according to statutory interpretation rules, the judicial inquiry ends.
So what happens now?
A request for an en banc ruling by the D. C. Circuit is the next step for Department of Justice. An en banc ruling is a decision made by all the justices, or the entire bench, of an appeals court, instead of a panel selected by the bench. In this case, three federal judges sat on the panel and the case was decided 2-1. An appeals court can only overrule a decision made by one of its panels if the court is sitting en banc.
Looking beyond any en banc ruling, the case could, potentially, be heard by the U.S. Supreme Court, especially in light of the importance of the decision and the fact that a 4th Circuit Court of Appeals ruled the opposite way literally hours after Halbig was announced. See David King, et al. v. Burwell, et al.
The Fourth Circuit found the ACA ambiguous, and it states, “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. We thus affirm the judgment of the district court.”
Bizarre that two courts hold opposing positions on the same issue and publish both decisions on the same day. It reminds of the old Sam the Sheepdog cartoon, “Duh! Which way did he go? Which way did he go, George?”
Finally, in closing, and on a personal note, I would like to dedicate this blog to my lab-doberman mix, Booker T, who, sadly, passed Sunday. He was my best friend for over 14 years. You will be greatly missed, Booker T. Rest in peace.