Monday, March 24, 2014
Tomorrow, the D.C. Circuit will hear oral arguments in Halbig v. Sebelius. This is the litigation in which parties hostile to the ACA are challenging the IRS rule that makes tax subsidies available in federally run health insurance exchanges. Abbe Gluck has posted a deconstruction of the challengers' legislative and historical arguments at Balkinization, including a new post this morning discussing factual and historical inaccuracies in the appellants brief. I want to address one of those arguments here: the analogy that the health insurance exchanges are somehow like the Medicaid expansion ruled unconstitutionally coercive in NFIB v. Sebelius. This comparison is so far off the mark, it reveals the underlying goal, which is to test the breadth of NFIB's coercion holding at every opportunity and to challenge federal power writ large.
The ACA expanded Medicaid eligibility to everyone up to 133% of the federal poverty level, and the states challenged that expansion in NFIB on the theory that they could lose all of their funding under the terms of the Medicaid Act if states refused to expand. The Court found that the expansion of Medicaid was a change in "kind" rather than "degree" and that the funding for the "old Medicaid" program could not be jeopardized for state refusal to comply with the "new Medicaid" program as envisioned in the ACA. As I have written elsewhere, the Court's unconstitutional coercion analysis was full of holes. One of those holes was nonsensical statutory interpretation, namely that the Medicaid expansion was too different from the Medicaid Act for coercion analysis purposes, but that it was similar enough for purposes of limiting the Secretary's authority to withhold or withdraw state Medicaid funding. But, that authority was not in the ACA (contrary to popular perception), it was in the language of the original Medicaid Act. The new/old Medicaid distinction was statutorily nonsensical, and yet it led to a newly recognized coercion doctrine that limits Congress's power to influence state policy through federal spending.
The Halbig appellants want federal courts to engage in this new coercion analysis by virtue of similarly absurd statutory interpretation. They ask the D.C. Circuit to deem the federal exchange funding offered to states to be struck down as coercive; but, they argue it is coercive not because of the money offered to states to create exchanges, but rather because of the tax credits that would not be available to individuals in exchanges established by the federal government. This causal chain is too attenuated; the claim is basically that the states were influenced not by the federal offer of funds but by the unavailability of tax credits for their citizens in federal exchanges. If this indirect coercion were possible, it is hard to imagine that two-thirds of states would have rejected the option to run state exchanges. It also breaks the link between the federal funding, the condition, and the supposed coercion (which is really a germaneness problem). States do not receive insurance premium tax credits, individuals do. States were offered moderate sums to establish their exchanges, and the loss of that moderate sum did not change the state's status at all. The appellants have mischaracterized the nature of the funding and the result of state rejection of that federal funding.
In addition, this argument can easily be turned on its head. Consider, for example, the Amicus Brief for the Commonwealth of Virginia in King v. Sebelius, recently filed in the Fourth Circuit's version of this tax credit litigation. Virginia argues that it was not aware that its citizens would lose access to tax credits if it rejected the funding to create its own exchange, thereby creating the polar opposite clear notice problem because Virginia believed its citizens would still have access to affordable health insurance if they invited the federally run exchange into the state. (See Kevin Outterson's post on Virginia's brief at The Incidental Economist.)
Clearly, exchange funding is different from Medicaid conditional spending. The ACA offered money to persuade states to participate in the establishment of exchanges, but the federal government will proceed without the states in the effort to establish near-universal insurance coverage. Congress would have dismantled its own goal of near-universal insurance coverage if it denied tax credits in federally run exchanges. This is the hope of the Halbig challengers, that the D.C. Circuit will dismantle the ACA's tax credit structure for federal exchanges and gut access to health insurance. Unfortunately, if they succeed, real people will be harmed.