The U.S. Supreme Court adopted a holistic, broad contextual reading of the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act in ruling today in King v. Burwell that premium tax credits to subsidize the purchase of individual health coverage are available on all state health benefit exchanges, including those states that opted to allow the federal government to set up the exchange.
The majority opinion by Chief Justice John Roberts is the second major decision he authored turning back significant challenges to the law. In June 2013, Roberts upheld the Affordable Care Act’s requirement that all individuals have some form of health coverage or pay a tax penalty.
The petitioners argued the Affordable Care Act permitted the tax credits only in states that established an exchange through direct state action rather than defaulting to the federal government operation of an exchange. The majority opinion however took a three-legged stool analysis in concluding the tax credit subsidies are one of three critical elements of the law’s reforms of the individual health insurance market that work together in a unified manner. Removing the subsidies in some states would thus collapse this tripartite reform scheme and result in the failure of the market that Congress clearly intended to remedy, the majority concluded.
“The combination of no tax credits and an ineffective coverage requirement could well push a State’s individual insurance market into a death spiral” of adverse selection, Roberts wrote for the majority. “It is implausible that Congress meant the Act to operate in this manner.” Roberts noted Congress passed the Affordable Care Act “to improve health insurance markets, not to destroy them. If at all possible, we must interpret the Act in a way that is consistent with the former, and avoids the latter.”
Two words trump four: The petitioners’ challenge turned on the last four words at Section 1311(d)(1) in the Affordable Care Act, defining an exchange as a governmental agency or nonprofit entity that is “established by a State.” But the law’s general reference to the mandatory exchanges using the term “such exchange” trumped those four words, the majority reasoned, creating parity between exchanges created by state action and those set up by the federal government: (The Affordable Care Act requires exchanges operate in all states from 2014-16 with provisions for a waiver beginning in 2017)
If a State chooses not to follow the directive in Section 18031 to establish an Exchange, the Act tells the Secretary of Health and Human Services to establish “such Exchange.” §18041. And by using the words “such Exchange,” the Act indicates that State and Federal Exchanges should be the same. But State and Federal Exchanges would differ in a fundamental way if tax credits were available only on State Exchanges—one type of Exchange would help make insurance more affordable by providing billions of dollars to the States’ citizens; the other type of Exchange would not.
The majority’s legal analysis was not based on the doctrine of deference to reasonable regulatory agency interpretation of ambiguous statutory law under Chevron U. S. A. Inc. v. Natural Resources Defense Council, Inc., 467 U. S. 837. While that analysis is based on the premise that Congress delegated interpretation of a statute to regulators, it is not appropriate in this case, Roberts wrote:
“In extraordinary cases, however, there may be reason to hesitate before concluding that Congress has intended such an implicit delegation.” This is one of those cases. The tax credits are among the Act’s key reforms, involving billions of dollars in spending each year and affecting the price of health insurance for millions of people. Whether those credits are available on Federal Exchanges is thus a question of deep “economic and political significance” that is central to this statutory scheme; had Congress wished to assign that question to an agency, it surely would have done so expressly.
The full opinion as well as a dissenting opinion authored by Justice Antonin Scalia is available here.
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