By Joan H. Krause
[Cross-posted from Hamilton and Griffin on Rights]
The long-awaited and much-debated opinion in King v. Burwell is here. In an opinion written by Chief Justice Roberts – who almost single-handedly saved the ACA with his 2012 opinion in N.F.I.B. v. Sebelius – and newly joined by N.F.I.B. dissenter Justice Kennedy as well as the more liberal Justices, the Court agreed with the Fourth Circuit that the ACA’s tax credits (or “subsidies”) are available to individuals who purchase insurance through both State and Federal health insurance Exchanges. The Petitioners, four Virginia residents who did not wish to purchase health insurance, had argued that Virginia’s Federally-run Exchange did not constitute “an Exchange established by the State” under the ACA tax credit provision; because unsubsidized coverage would cost more than 8% of the Petitioners’ incomes, they would be exempt from the Act’s individual mandate and would not be required to purchase health insurance. While acknowledging that the Petitioners’ arguments regarding the “plain meaning” of the phrase were strong, the majority nonetheless sided with the Government, holding that the context and structure of the overall statute led to the conclusion that the statute permitted tax credits for insurance purchased on “any Exchange created under the Act,” whether State or Federal (slip op. at 21). Justice Scalia penned a scathing yet witty dissent (“We should start calling this law SCOTUScare,” slip op., Scalia, J. dissenting, at 21), arguing that the plain meaning of the language made clear that tax credits were available only on State exchanges, and that any flaws in the Act’s design should be left to Congress to fix.
Despite the attention it received, King was something of a stealth ACA case. Lacking the Constitutional controversies of N.F.I.B., it was in many ways a run-of-the mill statutory interpretation case focusing on four words in a massive document containing, in the words of the Chief Justice, “more than a few examples of inartful drafting” (slip op. at 14). And yet the potential effects of the decision were perhaps even more far-reaching, in large part because of the timing. N.F.I.B.’s Commerce Clause analysis may have more precedential value in the long-run, but far fewer of the Act’s provisions had gone into effect in June of 2012. With approximately 7 million individuals now receiving insurance through the Federal Exchange, and the majority of them (an estimated 87%) receiving subsidies, the decision in King could have led to the devastating loss of insurance for millions of Americans.
While commentators will no doubt parse every sentence of the opinion (including the Court’s refusal to defer to the IRS’s interpretation of the statute under Chevron), as a health lawyer I found two aspects of the opinion notable. First, the Chief Justice drafted a very nuanced (and mercifully succinct) description of the health insurance market flaws the ACA was designed to address. The Chief Justice understood the ACA’s “three key reforms” – guaranteed issue and community rating of insurance policies, the individual mandate, and tax credits – as well as the ways in which the three were “closely intertwined” (slip op. at 3-4). The first few pages cite multiple horror stories from states where some, but not all, of these reforms were enacted; for data, the opinion cites liberally to the Brief for Bipartisan Economic Scholars as Amici. In its depth (not to mention brevity), the analysis is completely different from the tortured description of health insurance found just a few years ago in N.F.I.B., evincing a far more sophisticated understanding of both the legal issues and the legislation itself.