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Following the recent Supreme Court ruling regarding contraceptives in the Hobby Lobby Stores case, a new circuit decision now sets the stage for another possible Supreme Court decision on the ACA. On Tuesday (July 22, 2014), the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia (in Halbig v. Burwell) and the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit (in King v. Burwell) issued conflicting opinions regarding the IRS’ authority to administer subsidies in federally facilitated exchanges.
In general, the employer mandate requires that “applicable large employers” offer their full-time employees minimum essential coverage or potentially pay a tax penalty in 2015. However, according to the statutory text of the ACA, the penalties under the employer mandate are triggered only if an employee receives a subsidy to purchase coverage “through an Exchange established by the State under section 1311…” of the ACA. If a state elected not to establish an exchange or was unable to establish an operational exchange by January 1, 2014, the Secretary of HHS was required to establish a federal-run exchange under section 1321 of the ACA.
The appellants in each of these cases are residents of states that did not establish state run exchanges. Consequently, the appellants argue that the IRS does not have the authority to administer subsidies in their states because the exchanges were set up by HHS under section 1321 of the ACA and not under section 1311 as is the clear prerequisite for IRS authority to administer the subsidies.
In regulations implementing the subsidies, the IRS recognized this discrepancy and noted that “[c]ommentators disagreed on whether the language [of the ACA] limits the availability of the premium tax credit only to taxpayers who enroll in qualified health plans [QHPs] on State Exchanges."
The IRS, however, rejected these comments and stated that, “[t]he statutory language of section 36B and other provisions of the Affordable Care Act support the interpretation that credits are available to taxpayers who obtain coverage through a State Exchange, regional Exchange, subsidiary Exchange, and the Federally-facilitated Exchange. Moreover, the relevant legislative history does not demonstrate that Congress intended to limit the premium tax credit to State Exchanges. Accordingly, the final regulations maintain the rule in the proposed regulations because it is consistent with the language, purpose, and structure of section 36B and the Affordable Care Act as a whole.”
In Halbig v. Burwell, the D.C. Circuit disagreed with the IRS’ interpretation and, in a 2-1 decision, held that the IRS regulation authorizing tax credits in federal exchanges was invalid. The court focused heavily on the text itself and concluded, “that the ACA unambiguously restricts the …subsidy to insurance purchased on Exchanges established by the state.”
In an opinion issued only hours following the D.C. Circuit decision, the 4th Circuit, in King v. Burwell, agreed with the IRS’ interpretation and upheld the subsidies by permitting the IRS to decide whether the premium tax credits should be available over the federal exchange. The justices argued that the text did not intend to create two unequal exchanges. Additionally, they argue that the ambiguous text of the act intended that the exchanges be operated as appendages of the Bureaucracy, and so under the directives of the IRS.
Currently, 36 states are using federally facilitated exchanges, including Florida. Further, roughly 85% of enrollees who signed up for health insurance receive subsidies allowing them to purchase coverage that would be otherwise unaffordable. If the subsidies allocated over the federal exchange were declared invalid, those individuals’ ability to receive subsidies to purchase coverage could be jeopardized. As a result, the average price of a health plan is projected to rise from $82 per month to $346 per month, making it more difficult to afford for approximately 5.4 M enrollees.
While the Halbig decision is a major setback to the ACA, it is almost certainly not the final word on this issue. Given the fact that two courts have reached different outcomes, the Supreme Court is more likely to weigh in on the decision. However, the Halbig decision is likely to be reviewed by the entire D.C. Circuit prior to any potential review by the Supreme Court.