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.