HealthLawProf Blog

Editor: Katharine Van Tassel
Creighton University School of Law

Wednesday, June 24, 2015

Affordable Care, the Supreme Court, and the Wisdom of Crowds

How will the Supreme Court rule on the challenge to the Affordable Care Act’s subsidies that help millions of lower- and middle-income Americans afford their health care coverage? According to FantasySCOTUS’s court watchers, who have correctly predicted more than 70 percent of Supreme Court decisions so far this year, Obamacare should remain intact.

This result is not surprising. The arguments in favor of the government are much stronger than are those for the challenger. To be sure, the challengers cite to two lines in the Affordable Care Act (ACA) that authorize subsidies for insurance bought on state-operated health insurance exchanges, without mentioning federally-operated state exchanges. Hence, argue the challengers, subsidies should be provided only for insurance purchased on state-operated exchanges, which means in only about 1/3 of states. But other language in ACA indicates that the subsidies are available for insurance purchased on all exchanges. When a statute’s language is ambiguous and there are reasonable alternative interpretations, courts are supposed to defer to the executive branch’s interpretation, not substitute their own interpretation.

And if one looks beyond the specific references to the subsidies to the broader context of ACA and the intent of Congress, it becomes even clearer that the subsidies should stand. Several other sections of ACA assume that subsidies are available on all exchanges, as did members of Congress when they passed the law. Indeed, it wasn’t until nine months after ACA was passed that anyone noticed the language in the bill suggesting that subsidies might be available only on state-operated exchanges.

Of course, these arguments have not persuaded all federal judges, and they are not expected to have persuaded at least three Supreme Court justices. But if precedent prevails, ACA will survive its latest challenge.

[cross-posted Bill of Health and]

June 24, 2015 in Affordable Care Act, Health Care Reform, Health Reform, PPACA, Public Opinion | Permalink | Comments (0)

Tuesday, June 23, 2015

Congress, too, is mystified by long-delayed Equal Access regs

Members of the House Committee on Energy and Commerce and the Senate Committee on Finance sent a letter today to Secretary Burwell, urging HHS to issue the Equal Access regulations that have been in limbo since 2011.  This is an important and much-needed call for action in the wake of Armstrong v. Exceptional Child Center, which shut down private rights of action for Medicaid providers seeking fair reimbursement from states in federal courts.  The letter explicitly recognizes the harm that the Court's recent decision will inflict on the Medicaid program, which I've written about on this blog (most recently here) in the context of both Armstrong and Douglas v. Independent Living Center.  

Though the draft regulations were not perfect, and in fact would benefit from putting some real teeth into HHS's review of states' payment decisions on equal access to care for Medicaid beneficiaries, they would at least ensure that HHS is actively overseeing states' payment rate decisions.  Currently, states are able to change rates with very little intervention from HHS, which often involves decreasing payment rates to balance state budgets.  Now that the Court has tasked HHS with enforcing the equal access provision, rather than the providers who HHS admittedly relied on to raise flags about states' low payment rates, HHS must complete the draft regulations.  Perhaps this direct plea from members of key committees will refocus HHS's attention on these important regulations.

June 23, 2015 in Affordable Care Act, End-of-Life Care, Health Care Reform, HHS, Medicaid, Payment, Politics, PPACA, Spending | Permalink | Comments (0)

Monday, March 9, 2015

Replacing the Affordable Care Act?

With the future of the Affordable Care Act in doubt after last week’s hearing before the U.S. Supreme Court, Republican lawmakers are busily preparing back-up legislation. New options should not be necessary—the government should prevail against those challenging its interpretation of the Act’s premium subsidy provisions. But it is prudent to consider alternatives in the event that the Court rules against the government.

While most of the ideas being floated would do little to bring health care insurance to the uninsured, there is an option that really could expand access to coverage while also containing health care spending. And it could be attractive to Republicans and Democrats alike on Capitol Hill.

Continue reading

March 9, 2015 in Access, Affordable Care Act, Health Care, Health Care Costs, Health Care Reform, Health Reform, Policy, Politics, PPACA, Reform, Spending | Permalink | Comments (0) | TrackBack (0)

Wednesday, March 4, 2015

Oral Arguments in King v. Burwell, and thoughts about additional implications for the case

Oral arguments ran over an hour in King v. Burwell today (transcript available here). As many are aware, the question in this case involves whether the IRS appropriately interpreted the ACA to authorize tax credits for insurance policies purchased on both state-based and federally-based health insurance exchanges.  The plaintiffs claimed that the IRS has acted illegally in providing tax credits through federally-run exchanges, and if they are successful, the IRS will immediately cease offering subsidies to individuals who have purchased health insurance in federally-run exchanges.  

Reading oral arguments is always less satisfying than hearing or witnessing them, but reading the tea leaves is still irresistible when justices appear to reveal their positions.  For example,  Justices Kagan, Sotomayor, Ginsburg, and Breyer appeared to agree with the arguments put forth by the United States. Justices Scalia and Alito appeared to agree with Mr. Carvin and the plaintiffs, though Justice Alito appeared open to some of statutory answers being provided by Solicitor General Verrilli toward the end of his argument.  The Chief Justice was almost silent during the oral arguments, and Justice Kennedy raised his favorite topic, federalism, and whether Carvin's interpretation of the ACA can lead to unprecedented coercion of the states, raising a fatal constitutional consequence for what should otherwise be an exercise in legislative interpretation.

This line of questioning is worth considering for a moment.  Readers are probably aware that the doctrine of coercion was merely a theory until the Court breathed life into it in NFIB v. Sebelius.  In that decision, the Court held that the ACA's Medicaid expansion was unconstitutionally coercive because states, in the plurality's view, had to choose between expanding Medicaid to childless, non-elderly adults or losing all of their Medicaid funding.  But, the structure of Medicaid is quite different from the structure of the exchanges.  If a state rejects Medicaid funding, then that state has no Medicaid program within its borders - this form of cooperative federalism facilitated the coercion analysis in NFIB, because the states successfully argued that they could not realistically leave the program.  The exchanges, on the other hand, epitomize 'backstop federalism' - if a state rejected funding to create a state-based exchange, then the federal government would step in (and it did).  

Initially, it was unclear what Justice Kennedy was pursuing in his federalism questioning, because he seemed to indicate that he perceived the Medicaid-style federalism at work in the exchanges.  He later clarified, however, that he was concerned about the ramifications of the challengers' theory, that Congress intended to deny subsidies in states that refused to establish exchanges, thereby obliquely and opaquely threatening states by refusing to offer tax credits to their citizens.  Not only is this interpretation of the ACA plainly wrong, but it would also create a bizarre conditional spending situation where the states did not know they were being threatened until long after they decided to reject federal policy.  Justice Kennedy indicated that this reading of the statute would result in a "serious constitutional problem" that should be avoided, and he is right.  But, he was also skeptical about the actual language of the statute, so the U.S. cannot yet breathe easy.

 One additional observation for now - the impact on health insurance access will be even greater than the parties discussed.  If the IRS ends subsidies for insurance policies purchased through the federal exchange, the current tally indicates that approximately 8 million people will lose the subsidies that make insurance affordable for them.  While they will not be subject to a tax penalty for failure to carry health insurance, they also will not be able to afford health insurance.  That is immediately clear.  But, the ripples will be greater than the 8 million, because some states that have obtained waivers to expand Medicaid are placing their newly eligible Medicaid populations into the exchanges.  If the exchanges experience a death spiral due to increased premiums and loss of covered lives in the risk pool, then the exchanges become a very unstable way to provide Medicaid coverage and likely become unaffordable for states.  Demonstration waivers are supposed to be budget neutral, which would become impossible in plans like Arkansas' if the plaintiffs win this case.  Further, low-income individuals tend to churn between Medicaid and private insurance coverage - but if the insurance offered through federal exchanges is not subsidized, then they will churn into uninsured status, thereby increasing dramatically the number of lives affected by this decision.  

Of course, if the Court upholds the IRS interpretation of the ACA, then we can all go back to waiting for the next challenge to come along.

March 4, 2015 in Affordable Care Act, Health Care Reform, Health Reform, Medicaid, Obama Administration, PPACA, Spending | Permalink | Comments (0) | TrackBack (0)

Monday, October 27, 2014

Hot off the press!

In this article, published today at the Illinois Law Review online, Jessica Roberts and I argue why the Medicaid expansion is a matter of social justice that must be taken seriously in the upcoming gubernatorial elections.  Here's the blurb from the journal:

On the doorstep of its fiftieth anniversary, Medicaid at last could achieve the ambitious goals President Lyndon B. Johnson enunciated for the Great Society upon signing Medicare and Medicaid into law in 1965. Although the spotlight shone on Medicare at the time, Medicaid was the “sleeper program” that caught America’s neediest in its safety net—but only some of them. Medicaid’s exclusion of childless adults and other “undeserving poor” loaned an air of “otherness” to enrollees, contributing to its stigma and seeming political fragility. Now, Medicaid touches every American life. One in five Americans benefits from Medicaid’s healthcare coverage, and that number soon will increase to one in four due to the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act. Medicaid’s universalization reveals that the program can now be best understood as a vehicle for civil rights. ...

October 27, 2014 in Affordable Care Act, Coverage, Disabilities, Health Care Reform, Medicaid, Obama Administration, Politics, PPACA, Public Health | Permalink | Comments (0) | TrackBack (0)

Friday, July 25, 2014

The Problematic Jurisprudence of Halbig v. Burwell

Like the recent Supreme Court decision in Hobby Lobby, the D.C. Circuit’s ruling earlier this week in Halbig v. Burwell is being hailed by conservatives and bemoaned by liberals as a death knell for Obamacare.  Unlike the decision in Hobby Lobby, however the D.C. Circuit’s ruling is not the end of the matter, and many liberals are finding hope in the ruling of the 4th Circuit the same day, the probability of an en banc hearing in the D.C. Circuit, and the ultimate possibility of a favorable Supreme Court decision.  In an earlier post in HealthLawProf, I decided to take seriously the possibility of damage control from a limited reading of Hobby Lobby.  It is pretty much universally agreed—and I believe correctly—that it is not possible to do similar damage control by giving a limited reading to Halbig v. Burwell.  If the ruling stands, that tax subsidies are not available to people purchasing coverage through the exchanges in the states that are letting the federal government do the work, many important other provisions of the ACA will be untenable, including the penalties for large employers not offering insurance whose employees receive subsidies and likely the individual mandate itself.  But I think it is possible to undermine Halbig in a way not generally recognized by the liberal critics who argue (correctly) that the statutory provision at issue is ambiguous:  argue that the jurisprudence of the majority opinion in Halbig is internally inconsistent.  Here’s how.

Under D.C. Circuit precedent, the court must “uphold an agency action unless we find it to be ‘arbitrary, capricious, an abuse of discretion, or otherwise not in accordance with law.’”  So, the question for the court was whether the IRS rule permitting individuals purchasing insurance through federally-run exchanges was arbitrary, capricious, an abuse of discretion, or otherwise not in accordance with law.  In concluding that it was, Judge Griffith’s opinion for the court reasoned that it was not in accordance with law. That is, Judge Griffith found that there was no ambiguity in the relevant provision of ACA that permitted the IRS to interpret the statute as it did.   Here's where much of the criticism takes him on.  But there’s more to say.

In reaching the conclusion that the statutory language is not ambiguous, Judge Griffith purported to rely on a literalist approach to statutory interpretation.  But he did not in fact rely consistently on such an approach—nor could he have done so.  The problem is that in order to formulate the literalist question to answer, Judge Griffith had to resolve several issues in a manner that was not literalist at all.

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July 25, 2014 in Affordable Care Act, Health Care Reform, Health Law, Obama Administration, PPACA | Permalink | Comments (0) | TrackBack (0)

Thursday, July 24, 2014

More on Halbig

Over at Balkinization, Abbe Gluck, Neil Siegel, and Joey Fishkin have excellent posts on what's wrong with the Halbig majority.  Abbe's is especially important given that the majority wrongly agreed with the complainants that the exchange is some kind of cooperative federlism program.  It's not.

July 24, 2014 in Affordable Care Act, Health Law, Politics, PPACA | Permalink | Comments (0) | TrackBack (0)

Wednesday, July 23, 2014

Circuit Split in One Day: Tax Credits, Halbig and King (or, The Latest ACA Headache)

This has been cross-posted for a more general audience at ACSblog. Though it contains more background than most healthlawprof readers will need, analysis comes after the jump.

The D.C. Circuit held in Halbig v. Burwell that the IRS cannot provide tax credits to individuals who purchase private health insurance in states with federally-run insurance exchanges, potentially depriving millions of middle and low income Americans access to affordable health insurance.  Improbably, while the blogosphere lit up, the Fourth Circuit held in King v. Burwell that the IRS properly interpreted the Affordable Care Act (ACA) to provide tax credits in all exchanges whether run by a state or the federal government. Members of the Obama Administration immediately declared they will seek rehearing by the D.C. Circuit en banc.  The standard of review for petitions for rehearing is rigorous, but given the importance of the case, and the new circuit split, rehearing is conceivable.  Further, it is not unreasonable to anticipate that the Supreme Court ultimately will grant a petition for certiorari in either or both of these cases. If it is upheld, Halbig could be the most damaging decision in the ACA litigation wars yet.  For those not mired in the details of the ACA and its ongoing legal challenges, here’s why.


The ACA attempts to create near-universal insurance coverage by making Americans insurable and by commanding insurers to play by uniform rules.  The ACA was created because, in 2008, one in five Americans did not have health insurance coverage.  To make this number tangible, imagine everyone you know with blue eyes… and now imagine they do not have health insurance.  That’s how many were uncovered, and the lack of coverage was just about that random too.  In the United States, if you don’t have health insurance, you don’t have access to consistent healthcare.  The ACA has clear goals, but it is a muddy scrum of legislative drafting that never underwent a conference committee process, and that imprecision has facilitated the litigation in these cases.

To avoid adverse selection (the problem of free riding), the ACA requires Americans to carry minimum essential coverage or face a tax penalty (upheld in NFIB v. Sebelius); however, if insurance premiums would cost more than 8% of an individual’s income, then no tax penalty will be assessed.  To facilitate health insurance coverage, the ACA created health insurance exchanges, also called marketplaces, where individuals and small groups can purchase health insurance that provides standardized benefits without exclusions for preexisting conditions and other disequalizing prohibitions.  People who earn 100-400% of the federal poverty level are eligible for federal tax credits that assist in paying premiums for private insurance on the exchanges (“premium assistance tax credits,” codified at 26 U.S.C. 36B), increasing substantially the number of people who can afford to purchase private health insurance. 

 States were given a choice to create exchanges with federal funding under ACA section 1311, and if they opted not to, then the federal government would create “such” exchange in the state under ACA section 1321.  Sixteen states and D.C. created their own exchanges before January 1, 2014, so currently two-thirds of states have federally-run exchanges.  This landscape is shifting slightly as some states’ exchanges fail and they move to federal mechanisms, while other states are still eyeballing the federal money available until 2015.  What matters here is that the majority of exchanges were federally-run on the day that Halbig was decided.

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July 23, 2014 in Affordable Care Act, Constitutional, Health Care Reform, HHS, Medicaid, Politics, PPACA, States | Permalink | Comments (0) | TrackBack (0)

Monday, July 7, 2014

Reading Hobby Lobby narrowly

I write this post with more than a little trepidation; I’m as unhappy as anyone about what the Court made of the Religious Freedom Restoration Act last week.  Nonetheless, given the current state of play, I’ve tried to see whether there are any ways to try to limit the damage. 

This Supreme Court term has featured a striking number of unanimous decisions.  What has drawn unanimity in these cases has been the narrow basis on which they were decided.  Commentators have praised Justice Roberts for his political skills in bringing the Court together—demonstrating that at least one branch of government remains functional and shoring up claims to judicial legitimacy.  Other observers note, however, that the unanimity is only skin deep—and point to the cases in which the Court divided 5-4 as symptomatic.  So suppose we perform a thought experiment on one of the most divisive decisions of this term, Hobby Lobby.  How could the decision have been narrowed?  How should it have been narrowed?  Such an examination is invited by Justice Alito’s statement that the Court’s holding is “very specific.”  It is also invited by Justice Kennedy’s concurrence, which opens with the assertion that the Court’s opinion “does not have the breadth and sweep ascribed to it by the respectful and powerful dissent.  Finally and disturbingly, it is also invited by the observation that the Court has quite quickly, in the case involving Wheaton College, opened wide one of the apparently narrow doors. 

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July 7, 2014 in Affordable Care Act, Coverage, Employer-Sponsored Insurance, Health Care Reform, Insurance, Obama Administration, PPACA | Permalink | Comments (0) | TrackBack (0)

Tuesday, July 1, 2014

Hobby Lobby and Overreaction

Undoubtedly, the Supreme Court has been too solicitous of corporate rights in recent years. And without doubt, reproductive rights are under siege from many state legislatures and federal judges. But these concerns do not justify the dramatic characterizations of yesterday’s Hobby Lobby decision.

According to Emily’s List, the Court’s decision to “restrict women’s health care” is a “devastating setback.” According to the Democratic Legislative Campaign Committee, “millions of women must have their bosses’ permission to access birth control.” And according to Planned Parenthood of Indiana and Kentucky, “countless women, already struggling to make ends meet, will not have the benefit of the family planning coverage provided to all others under the Affordable Care Act.”

In fact, the Court's decision need not result in limits on women’s access to contraception. To be sure, the Court agreed with Hobby Lobby (and Conestoga Wood) that they should not have to pay for methods of birth control that violate their religious beliefs (morning after pills and IUDs in this case). But the Court also observed that the federal government could use other approaches to guarantee access for women to contraception.

Indeed, wrote the Court, the government can employ the same accommodation for companies such as Hobby Lobby that it employs for religiously-affiliated, non-profit institutions such as universities. Under that accommodation, the organization’s insurer provides a separate plan for contraceptive coverage and does not bill the organization or the employee. In other words, the female employees receive full coverage without imposing a burden on the employer’s religious practice.

There are plenty of reasons to criticize the erosion of reproductive rights in the United States. And it is possible that the narrow holding of Hobby Lobby will be expanded in the future. But the decision itself does not entail a compromise of reproductive health.

July 1, 2014 in Affordable Care Act, Coverage, PPACA | Permalink | Comments (0) | TrackBack (0)

Saturday, May 3, 2014

Why Sen. Elizabeth Warren's Memoir is of Special Interest to Health Profs

I'm a guest over at prawfsblog this month--come visit-and my posting today was about why law professors should be interested in Sen. Elizabeth Warren's new memoir.  You can read the whole pitch below--it includes that it's a funny, warm, well-written and interesting account of a remarkably successful career.  I also noted how important her efforts at fixing student loan debt are as a platform on which to build needed change in higher education.  Finally, she has very interesting things to say about balancing work and family as well as going beyond the classroom to help the individuals affected by the law she studied.   At a recent executive board meeting of the AALS Section on Law, Medicine and Health Care, current chair Dr. Ani Satz noted that there are not many mechanisms for recognizing that kind of service.  (side note--consider yourself warmly invited to the terrific panels our chair elect, Dr. Thad Pope, has organized for us to present and co-sponsor, more information to come).

But for a health prof audience, I'd also point out that she discusses her empirical work (with a team of top social scientists--she didn't do the math herself) that finally demonstrated the major flaw in our employer based health insurance system.  Medical bills turned out to be the leading cause of bankruptcy--and very often among families already insured.  Either their insurance was inadequate (maybe we should get these folks together with the people who are upset they can't keep their "old" plans) or, worse, their illness meant they could no longer work.  Whether the debt came directly from medical bills or from using credit cards and home equity loans to pay the bills--the results were equally catastrophic.

That this actually happens--that medical bills are a leading cause of bankruptcy--is as far as I know not currently disputed.  But I'd be remiss in this context not to point out that as part of the opposition research arising from her running to Senate-the Breitbart blog has made available a series of angry accusations from the 1990's of misconduct about that study.

 It will be a while before we see if the Affordble Care Act is going to do much to fix this problem--and predictions are mixed.  See this as opposed to this.   There's a federal study finding bankruptcies down in Massachusetts following Romneycare.   Common sense suggests that changes like no exclusions for pre-existing conditions and the lift of lifetime caps will make things better (for people with plans bound by those provisions).

But although certainly not usually described as such, Sen. Warren is, if not a Health Law Prof, certainly one whose work is very important to us. 


May 3, 2014 in Affordable Care Act, Blog, Consumers, Coverage, Employer-Sponsored Insurance, Health Care Reform, Insurance, PPACA, Proposed Legislation, Reform, Research, Research Ethics, State Initiatives, Workforce | Permalink | Comments (0) | TrackBack (0)

Tuesday, April 8, 2014

Will the Uninsured Become Healthier Once They Receive Health Care Coverage?

The Affordable Care Act might not bend the cost curve or improve the quality of health care, but it will save thousands of lives, as millions of uninsured persons receive the health care they need. At least that’s the conventional wisdom. But while observers assume that ACA will improve the health of the uninsured, the link between health insurance and health is not as clear as one may think. Partly because other factors have a bigger impact on health than does health care and partly because the uninsured can rely on the health care safety net, ACA’s impact on the health of the previously uninsured may be less than expected.

To be sure, the insured are healthier than the uninsured. According to one study, the uninsured have a mortality rate 40% higher than that of the insured. However, there are other differences between the insured and the uninsured besides their insurance status, including education, wealth, and other measures of socioeconomic status.

How much does health insurance improve the health of the uninsured? The empirical literature sends a mixed message. On one hand is an important Medicaid study. Researchers compared three states that had expanded their Medicaid programs to include childless adults with neighboring states that were similar demographically but had not undertaken similar expansions of their Medicaid programs. In the aggregate, the states with the expansions saw significant reductions in mortality rates compared to the neighboring states

On the other hand is another important Medicaid study. After Oregon added a limited number of slots to its Medicaid program and assigned the new slots by lottery, it effectively created a randomized controlled study of the benefits of Medicaid coverage. When researchers analyzed data from the first two years of the expansion, they found that the coverage resulted in greater utilization of the health care system. However, coverage did not lead to a reduction in levels of hypertension, high cholesterol or diabetes.

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April 8, 2014 in Affordable Care Act, Health Care, Health Care Reform, PPACA, Uninsured | Permalink | Comments (0) | TrackBack (0)

Thursday, April 3, 2014

A Call out to the "Invicible" Young Adults--What You Don't Know About Childhood Diseases Could Prevent You From Having Any Children


One thing we’ve all heard during the discussion of the affordable care act is that young people don’t worry a lot about their health.  It’s therefore likely that few young adults ever think about whether or not they received adequate vaccination.

Perhaps if they better understood the consequences, they would do so.  What you've heard is true many childhood diseases are much more serious for adults than for children.    For a general overview look here.  Here’s some information about chickenpox.

Outbreaks of Mumps are being reported all over the country.  This week there are 116 cases in and near Ohio State University in Columbus. Fordham University in New York reported 11 in late February.   Just today, the NYC Board of Health reported 21 cases of Measels and Rubella (German Measels) isn't likely to be far behind.  These numbers may seem small—until you appreciate that Mumps used to be a very common childhood disease in the United States but is now very rare because of a highly effective vaccine. Unfortunately, many parents have chosen not to vaccinate their child against Mumps because of concerns about the MMR vaccine—that now turn out to be the result of fraudulent scientific data.       This piece put out by the Center for American Progress explains how states responding to political pressure from parents have been remarkably lax in enforcing mandatory vaccination laws for school children.  At this point, almost anyone with a concern to claim an exemption.  

So back to Mumps.  Few had heard of it, and no one knew what should really be the main attention grabber.   It can impair fertility—even to the extent of causing sterility.  There hasn't been a lot of research done recently and permanent sterility is rare- probably no more than 10%.  But why chance it when it can be prevented?  

And  that’s not the worst of it.   Measels and Rubella carry even greater risks for young adults.   A case of Rubella early in pregnancy caries with a 20% chance of serious birth defects.   The risk of permanent hearing loss after measels is highest in children under 5 and adults over 20

The good news on the public health front is that it’s never too late to be vaccinated.   And preventive vaccination (even for childhood diseases) is covered under the Affordable Act.  Young adults would be wise to look into their own vaccination status.  If pediatric records aren’t available, a blood test can measure antibodies that show the presence (or absence) of vaccination against many serious childhood diseases that are coming back to infect young adults.  But if vaccination laws continue to be lax, long after the reason for so many people's misgivings has turned out to be a fraud, we will not be able to get ahead of what should to everyone be a very frightening trend

April 3, 2014 in Affordable Care Act, CDC, Health Care, Policy, Politics, PPACA, Prescription Drugs, Prevention, Primary Care, Public Health | Permalink | Comments (0) | TrackBack (0)

Wednesday, March 26, 2014

Contraception, Corporations and Conscience

Do corporations have a right to religious expression? As the U.S. Supreme Court considers whether Hobby Lobby is exempted from the Affordable Care Act’s contraception mandate because of its religious beliefs, the Court first must decide whether for-profit corporations even have rights of religious freedom.

While the Supreme Court should impose appropriate limits on the First Amendment rights of corporations, there are important reasons to recognize corporate claims of religious freedom. We often call on corporations to act in ethically and socially responsible ways, and it is important that they do so. If we want corporations to inculcate an ethos of ethics, then we undercut that goal when we deny corporations their ability to act on the basis of conscience.

To be sure, there are nuances. It is much easier to speak of the religious freedom of a family-owned business such as Hobby Lobby than of a publicly-owned business such as General Electric. Moreover, we must draw a good balance between corporate rights and the public welfare (as I’ve argued about corporate speech and public health here).

Recognizing corporate rights of religious expression would not settle the Hobby Lobby case. We still would have to balance the public’s interest in access to contraception with the corporation’s interest in religious freedom. But that is where the debate should lie.

[cross-posted at]

March 26, 2014 in Affordable Care Act, Drug and Device, Health Care Reform, PPACA | Permalink | Comments (0) | TrackBack (0)

Monday, March 24, 2014

Halbig, King, Coercion, and the ACA Tax Credit Ligitation

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.

March 24, 2014 in Affordable Care Act, Health Care Reform, Health Reform, Policy, Politics, PPACA | Permalink | Comments (0) | TrackBack (0)

Friday, February 28, 2014

Continued Skepticism re "Wellness Programs"

A big part of the job of being a Health Law Prof is to help students understand the intersection of the many legal specialties that comprise the big tent of "Health Law."  Wellness Programs are a good way of doing that because one of the key features of the Affordable Care Act is the flexibility it provides employers to link the cost their employees pay for health insurance with the individual employee's participation in a company sponsored "welleness program."  Here's an article I wrote explaining how PPACA went about doing that.  Here's a link to the Department of Labor's summary of the current rules and a good overview by the law firm Nixon-Peabody.  This report from Rand is an overview of what these programs are and how companies have increasingly fallen in love with them.   At this point just about every insurance company is offering to create one--here's some information from Aetna.  

The problem is, there's very little evidence that these programs do anything to demonstrably improve health (whatever that may mean).  And quite a bit that they may promote many different kinds of social injustice.

 This article in the Harvard Business Review does a great job describing the kinds of programs that are now descending on employees and how they are creating disatsifaction without any scientifically supportable improvement in "health."

There is also a growing literature suggesting that these programs may disproportionately discourage workers who employers aren't that unhappy to see go--but might not legally be able to actually fire.  Here is some very interesting testimony by Jennifer Mathis Director of Programs, Bazelon Center for Mental Health Law
On Behalf of the Consortium of Citizens with Disabilities.

Michelle Mello at Harvard has coined the term "life-style discrimination" to describe the ways Wellness Programs may target individuals employers may perceive as undesirable because they are obese, smoke or have other non-job related characteristics.

Studying Wellness Programs--and the issues they raise--can be an accessible entry point for students who can easily be intimated by the regulatory complexity of health law and can also be a bridge to understanding how fundamentally the Affordable Care Act has affected the way health care will be paid for and delivered as our students begin their careers in advising those struggling to implement these new regulations.





February 28, 2014 in Access, Affordable Care Act, Consumers, Coverage, Disabilities, Effectiveness, Employer-Sponsored Insurance, Genetics, Health Care, Health Care Costs, Health Care Reform, Health Law, Health Reform, HHS, Insurance, Mental Health, Obesity, Policy, Politics, PPACA, Prevention, Public Health, Quality, Reform, Workforce | Permalink | Comments (0) | TrackBack (0)

Friday, January 17, 2014

IRS Rule Providing Tax Credits In Federal Exchanges Upheld

On Wednesday, Judge Friedman (U.S. District Court, District of Columbia) granted summary judgment to Secretary Sebelius in Halbig v. Sebelius (2014 WL 129023).  Individual plaintiffs and small businesses, supported by the Cato Institute, Competetive Enterprise Institute, and others, challenged the availability of tax credits in federally-run Health Insurance Exchanges as exceeding the IRS's administrative authority.  The court found that the statute, Congress's intent, and the legislative history of the Affordable Care Act supported the IRS's regulations.  Thus, tax credits will be available in Exchanges whether the insurance is purchased on an exchange created by a state or an exchange created by the federal government standing in the state's shoes. The opinion engaged in careful statutory analysis and found the first part of the Chevron test answered the legal questions the plaintiffs presented (though a footnote provided a quick second step analysis anyway).  Professor Gluck called this decision a big win for the ACA given that Chevron deference was not necessary in the court's analysis, and the court's methodical statutory analysis is certainly persuasive. (Professor Bagley posted a similarly sanguine analysis here.) By all accounts, this decision is a win for the Obama Administration.

This solid decision ought to end this frivolous litigation, but the plaintiffs have already stated that they will file an appeal.  As I discussed here and here, even though these challenges have no statutory traction, the plaintiffs are financially well supported, and they have the means to continue pressing their theories up the federal court ladder.  And, the political climate inspires unhappy policy losers to pursue their desired outcome through the judicial branch when they have lost in the legislative and executive branches.  Although the decision in NFIB v. Sebelius allowed the ACA to move forward, it opened the courthouse doors to litigation such as this, which pushes legal reasoning in directions that would not have been considered serious before the successes of the NFIB litigation.  While I do not believe that Halbig et al. have a real case for preventing tax credits in federally-run exchanges, that will not necessarily prevent another federal court from finding a differently.

January 17, 2014 in Affordable Care Act, Constitutional, Health Care Reform, Health Reform, HHS, Obama Administration, Politics, PPACA, States | Permalink | Comments (0) | TrackBack (0)

Friday, December 27, 2013

Republicans and Democrats on Health Care Reform: Not That Far Apart After All

Today’s New York Times describes the Republican Party’s search for an alternative to the Affordable Care Act (ACA). With millions of Americans about to receive their health care through ACA health insurance exchanges, GOP members of Congress recognize that reform rather than repeal is the more sensible strategy.

Interestingly, proposals by leading Republicans look very much like ACA and especially like the favored reform proposal of former Obama senior staffer, Ezekiel Emanuel. While Emanuel has embraced ACA’s individual mandate, his preferred approach to reform is a universal voucher for health care coverage (also discussed here). According to the Times, U.S. Representative Paul Ryan soon will release a revised version of a universal voucher that he and U.S. Senator Tom Coburn proposed in the past. The main difference between Emanuel’s voucher and the Ryan-Coburn voucher is in the amount of coverage. Emanuel would cover the full cost of an insurance plan with standard benefits (akin to the essential benefits requirement of ACA), while Ryan and Coburn pegged the value of a voucher at a fixed dollar amount, about 50-60 percent of the cost of a standard insurance policy. As with ACA, Ryan and Coburn would have established health insurance exchanges, required insurers to meet minimum standards and protected persons with pre-existing conditions from discrimination (though perhaps not to the degree that ACA protects them).

There are good reasons to prefer universal vouchers to ACA. When all Americans, rich and poor, are in the same program, the program works much better. Consider in this regard the differences between Medicare and Medicaid. ACA may promise nearly universal coverage, but persons at higher incomes still will receive their health care mostly through their employers rather than through ACA’s health insurance exchanges or the Medicaid expansion. That gives the political influential a much smaller stake in the success of ACA than they would have in a universal voucher program.

It’s not surprising that there is more agreement than disagreement on the specifics of health care reform. As many observers noted during the health care reform debate, the individual mandate for health care coverage began as a conservative alternative to Clinton health care, and Mitt Romney championed an individual mandate as governor of Massachusetts. As with immigration reform and other policy initiatives, the chief stumbling block to progress is not the lack of common ground but the strong political incentives for elected officials to pursue a policy of conflict.

[cross-posted at]

December 27, 2013 in Affordable Care Act, Health Care Reform, Politics, PPACA | Permalink | Comments (0) | TrackBack (0)

Tuesday, December 17, 2013

Get to Know the 9 ACA Exemptions-Health Care Sharing Ministries

Stacey Tovino, a rock-star health law professor and Lincy Professor of Law at the UNLV William S. Boyd School of Law and I were nearly knocked off our chairs at a presentation by Wellesley College Professor Charlene Galarneau, PhD on The ACA Exemption of Health Care Sharing Ministries at the ASBH- American Association of Bioethics and the Humanity’s annual Meeting last month.  If you are a health law professor (or hobbyist) and do not yet know what a Health Care Sharing Ministry is, prepare to be surprised.  It is NOT insurance but rather a non-binding agreement among people of faith to share their health care costs.  As the Alliance of Health Care Sharing Ministries explains, “A health care sharing ministry (HCSM) provides a health care cost sharing arrangement among persons of similar and sincerely held beliefs. HCSMs are not-for-profit religious organizations acting as a clearinghouse for those who have medical expenses and those who desire to share the burden of those medical expenses.”  It specifically does not provide the essential services of an ACA qualified plan.  Yet those without health insurance who are participating in one of these ministries are exempt from the obligation to purchase insurance or pay a penalty—even though it is highly likely that the cost of their care will fall on the community where they become sick and seek treatment.  Read more about it here and here.  Health Care Sharing Ministries are among the 9 exemptions in the Affordable Care Act, yet have not attracted significant attention.  Given their important role in exempting large numbers of people from the obligation of obtaining health insurance, they deserve a place, or at least a shout-out, in all of our classes.


December 17, 2013 in Access, Affordable Care Act, Coverage, Health Care, Individual Mandate , Policy, Politics, PPACA, Private Insurance, Public Health, Uninsured | Permalink | Comments (0) | TrackBack (0)

Saturday, November 23, 2013

Dynamic Medicaid Expansion

Yesterday's reports on the annual meeting of the Republican Governors Association indicated disarray over the Medicaid expansion, and an opinion piece in the NYT highlighted the common story that only half of states are expanding their Medicaid programs.  If CMS is counting, then this tally is correct, as the federal agency can only account for those states that have submitted the proper documentation for expansion.  But this is not the only way to consider the states' decisionmaking regarding the expansion.  I have just posted a short essay preliminarily detailing research I have performed over the last several months, which reveals that many states currently counted as "not participating" are acting to expand their Medicaid programs.  Here is the abstract:

In the run up to the ACA’s effective date of January 1, 2014, the sleeper issue has been the Medicaid expansion, even though Medicaid stands to cover nearly a quarter of the United States citizenry. While the national press has portrayed a bleak picture that only half of the states will participate, the Medicaid expansion is progressing apace. Though this thesis may sound wildly optimistic, it is more than predictive; it is empirically based. I have gathered data on the implementation of the Medicaid expansion during the crucial months leading up to the operation of the insurance provisions of the ACA, and it is clear that most states are moving toward expansion, even if they are currently classified by the media as “not participating” or “leaning toward not participating.” The data thus far reveals counterintuitive trends, for example that many Republican governors are leading their states toward implementation, even in the face of reticent legislatures and a national party’s hostility toward the law. Further, the data demonstrates dynamic negotiations occurring within states and between the federal and state governments, which indicates that the vision of state sovereignty projected by the Court in NFIB v. Sebelius was incorrect and unnecessary.

November 23, 2013 in Affordable Care Act, CMS, Constitutional, Health Care Reform, Health Law, Health Reform, HHS, Medicaid, Obama Administration, PPACA, Spending | Permalink | Comments (0) | TrackBack (0)