Friday, June 8, 2018
The federal government argued yesterday in the Texas Obamacare case that (1) Obamacare's individual mandate is now unconstitutional and (2) therefore the Obamacare pre-existing-conditions ("guaranteed issue") and "community rating" provisions must fall.
The filing (by the federal government as defendant in the case) is an unusual instance of the Justice Department refusing to defend a federal law in court. (Some states, led by California, have moved to intervene to defend the law.)
The filing is also notable for its attempt to pick off just three provisions of Obamacare--the individual mandate, the ban on pre-existing-conditions discrimination, and the community rating provision--while keeping the rest of the Act intact. (This contrasts with the plaintiffs' approach, which seeks to strike all of Obamacare. In this way, the federal government's position--as sweeping as it is--is nevertheless more modest than the position of Texas and the other plaintiffs in the case.)
Here's a summary of the federal government's argument:
1. The individual mandate as it stands effective January 2019 is unconstitutional. That's because Congress, in the Tax Cuts and Jobs Act, enacted earlier this year, eliminated the tax-penalty for not having health insurance beginning in January 2019. Without the tax-penalty, the individual mandate no longer can raise revenue for the federal government. If it can't raise revenue, it can't fall within Congress's power to tax. And, as the Court ruled in NFIB, it also can't fall within Congress's power to regulate interstate commerce. Therefore, the individual mandate, as it will read in January 2019, is unsupported by congressional authority, and is unconstitutional.
2. The requirements that health insurers accept individuals with pre-existing conditions (or the prohibition on discrimination by pre-existing conditions, the "guaranteed issue" provision) and that insurers charge rates within a particular range for a particular community (the "community rating" provision) are inseverable from the individual mandate. (This is the position that the federal government also took in defending the individual mandate in NFIB.) Here's why: Congress has authority under the Commerce Clause to prohibit discrimination and regulate insurance rates. But if Congress only enacted those provisions, without an individual mandate, rates would go through the roof. The only way to keep rates affordable is to require everybody (including people who are healthy now) to get into the insurance pool. That's the individual mandate. Thus, the individual mandate and the other two requirements go hand-in-hand in achieving Congress's goal under the ACA of keeping rates affordable. (The federal government also had a standing argument for why it's only challenging these two provisions: the individual plaintiffs in the case only alleged harms related to these two provisions, and not to the rest of Obamacare.)
3. Because the guaranteed-issue and community-rating provisions are inseverable from the unconstitutional individual mandate, they, too, must fall. But other key portions of Obamacare--including provisions "concerning various insurance regulations, health insurance exchanges and associated subsidies, the employer mandate and Medicaid expansion, and reduced federal healthcare reimbursement rates for hospitals"--are severable, and therefore can remain in place.
It's not clear from the filing whether and how this argument might affect other portions of Obamacare not mentioned, most notably the requirement that insurers allow parents to keep their children on their insurance until age 26.
The government opposed the plaintiffs' request for a preliminary injunction and instead argued that the court should issue declaratory relief, at least until January 2019.