One of the linchpins of the Affordable Care Act (Obamacare) is to have everyone in the United States get Health Care Insurance. The way that the law instructed that this be done was to have the States set up Exchanges; access to the exchanges would allow each person to shop, preferably on-line, for an insurance policy that would best meet their needs. Accessing the exchange website would allow the people to compare the types of coverage, the premiums they would be responsible for, and the deductibles available. It would be one stop shopping for health insurance. This is a great idea on its face.
Since the requirements of health insurance were powers relegated to the states, each state would be in the best position to decide which policies would meet that particular state’s requirements.
Under the law, if the state decided that the cost for setting up the exchange was too high or for whatever other reason, they could choose to have the Federal government come in and set up an exchange for them. The Federal government preferred to have the States set up the exchanges but they could not force the states to do so as that would violate rules of Federalism and the separation of powers. The Administration had to come up with a way to get the states to “buy in” and they decided to do this by making tax credits available to the people of the States that set up their own, non-federal, exchange.
These tax credits were critical for the law to succeed because without them, the costs of meeting the requirements of coverage would exceed eight percent of the income of many people which would allow those people to claim exemption from coverage. Since many of these people were healthy and would not generate much health care costs, insurance carriers really needed them to participate in order for business to be viable.
The reason that the premiums had to be high was the ACA’s requirements for “guaranteed issue” and “community rating.” The “guaranteed issue requirement” meant that insurers could not deny any person coverage due to a pre-existing medical condition. The “community rating” requirement prevented the insurance carriers from charging higher premiums for those with a pre-existing medical condition. It was probably the “guaranteed issue” and “community rating” issues that led to the failure of “Romney care” in Massachusetts and the commercial insurance market in New York, but that’s another story.
Without the tax credits along with the requirements of “guaranteed issue” and “community rating” it was foreseeable that many healthy individuals would face premiums that would exceed eight percent of their income whereby they would be exempt from buying health insurance or if they did not meet the eight percent level, they would opt out of the Affordable Care Act insurance requirements and pay the tax penalty (much less than the offered premiums) instead. These healthy people could buy the insurance after they became sick and they would suffer no penalties for waiting. This is another example of people acting rationally.
Surprising to the Obama Administration, many of the States decided to opt out of setting up their own exchanges. There was a very real concern that many people in those states, not being eligible for the tax credits, would not buy health insurance and they would not be penalized since the premiums they would have to pay amounted to more than eight percent of their income. If these predominately health people would not participate, the insurance carriers would likely go bankrupt and have to withdraw from participating in the ACA. This could have led to a death spiral for the whole Affordable Care Act.
Under direction from the White House, the Internal Revenue Service (IRS) decided to make tax credits available to all who used the exchanges, even the exchanges set up by the Federal government.
The Petitioners in this Supreme Court case were citizens of Virginia, a state with a Federal Exchange. The Petitioners did not want to purchase health insurance and if they were not eligible for tax credits their premiums would have fallen above the eight percent threshold of their income and, thus, would have been exempt from the law’s coverage requirement. However, with the IRS rule, they would have been eligible for the tax credits and would have to buy insurance or be subject to the IRS tax penalty.
The District Court which heard the case held that the Act made tax credits available to those enrolled in a Federal Exchange. The Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit affirmed. The Fourth Circuit wrote that the Act was “ambiguous and subject to at least two different interpretations.” They chose to defer to the IRS’s interpretation.
At the same time that the Fourth Circuit was issuing its holding, the Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit ruled against the IRS Rule, holding that the ACA “unambiguously restricts” the tax credits to State Exchanges. This Circuit did not believe that the Federal Exchange was a State Exchange.
When two different circuits come down with two different holdings of the law, it is not unusual for the Supreme Court to grant certiorari and they did.
The legal issue of the case was whether the Act’s tax credits would be allowed in States that have a Federal Exchange. The Supreme Court held that they would be allowed. The Court, in dicta, wrote “an Exchange established by the State…is properly viewed as ambiguous. The phrase may be limited in its reach to State Exchanges. But it is also possible that the phrase refers to all Exchanges—both State and Federal—at least for the purposes of tax credits.”
The Court went on to say that “[t]hose credits are necessary for the Federal Exchanges to function like their State Exchange counterparts and to avoid the type of calamitous result that Congress plainly meant to avoid.” It seems like the Court was saving the Affordable Care Act from itself.
In a blistering dissent, Justice Scalia, made it clear that a Federal Exchange was not the same as a State Exchange and the tax credits were purposely kept out of the States which opted for a Federal Exchange. The Secretary of Health and Human Services, the person responsible for setting up the Federal Exchanges was not a “State” and thus, citizens of those states should not have been eligible for the tax credits.
Historically, the Court does not like to salvage poorly written laws. They will interpret what is before them and then expect Congress to do its job by making the necessary repairs. The Supreme Court decided to make the credits available to everyone to make the insurance affordable to all. They seemed to be doing what Congress should have been responsible for.
In the United States, under our Constitution, any changes in the law should have come through the Congress. However, in light of the fact that the Congress was now controlled by the Republicans, it is unlikely that the necessary changes needed to save the law would not have been passed; the ACA was in dire straits and the Obama administration recognized this.
King v. Burwell brought to light a significant problem with the Affordable Care Act. In an effort to save an unartfully crafted law, the Obama administration changed the law to allow the Internal Revenue Service to spend billions of dollars on tax credits for those using Federal Exchanges. Changing the law is not a power vested in the Executive branch under the Constitution of the United States. All spending rules must emanate from the United States Congress.
In what looks like an effort to avoid a Constitutional crisis, and the disintegration of the Affordable Care Act, the Supreme Court ruled that any Exchange, including one set up by the Federal government, was really a State exchange. This power to re-write the law is, again, not a power vested in the Supreme Court. However, once the Supreme Court makes a decision, that decision is final.
It is said that the Supreme Court is not last because it is right, it is right because it is last. There must be finality in the law or we will have a society in disarray. The issue on tax-credits and the origination of the Exchanges under the ACA is over! At least for now.
 King v. Burwell, 576 U.S._(2015).