Does HHS Have the Authority to Tax Health Premiums in Federal Exchanges?

Remember how an adviser to the federal Department of Health and Human Services said the department would have to “get creative” on funding federal health insurance exchanges, because states were refusing to create their own and ObamaCare provides no source of funding for federal exchanges? Well, HHS released its very creative response in a Friday news dump today, and the answer is “user fees” of 3.5 percent on all health insurance plans sold through federal exchanges.

But is that a little too creative? Does HHS have the authority to tax health premiums in its exchanges? Here’s what the department’s proposed regulation says:

Federally-facilitated Exchange user fees: Section 1311(d)(5)(A) of the Affordable Care Act contemplates an Exchange charging assessments or user fees to participating issuers to generate funding to support its operations. As the operator of a Federally-facilitated Exchange, HHS has the authority, under this section of the statute, to collect and spend such user fees. In addition, 31 U.S.C. 9701 provides for an agency to establish a charge for a service provided by the agency. Office of Management and Budget Circular A-25 Revised (“Circular A-25R”) establishes Federal policy regarding user fees and specifies that a user charge will be assessed against each identifiable recipient for special benefits derived from Federal activities beyond those received by the general public. In this proposed rule, we establish a user fee for issuers participating in a Federally-facilitated Exchange.

I don’t know anything about 31 U.S.C. 9701 or Circular A-25R. But here’s the Section 1311(d)(5)(A) language upon which they rely:

NO FEDERAL FUNDS FOR CONTINUED OPERATIONS.—In establishing an Exchange under this section, the State shall ensure that such Exchange is self-sustaining beginning on January 1, 2015, including allowing the Exchange to charge assessments or user fees to participating health insurance issuers, or to otherwise generate funding, to support its operations.

A few thoughts:

  1. It is interesting that when the federal government wants to justify generating funds for their Exchanges’ operational expenses, they cite for authority a paragraph titled, “NO FEDERAL FUNDS FOR CONTINUED OPERATIONS.”
  2. The proposed regulation correctly notes that Section 1311(d)(5)(A) only “contemplates” state Exchanges charging assessments. It certainly doesn’t authorize states to make such assessments; states already have the authority to impose such levies. (They are states, after all.) Nor does it even direct states to levy user fees. It says, in essence, “You gotta fund this yourself. Here are a couple of methods. Knock yourselves out.” Since Section 1311(d)(5)(A) doesn’t give states the authority to levy such taxes, it’s hard to see how that paragraph translates into “HHS has the authority, under this section of the statute, to collect and spend such user fees” (emphasis added).
  3. Section 1311(d)(5)(A) speaks specifically of states. It makes no mention of the federal government. Lest anyone think its mention of “an Exchange” could refer to state or federal exchanges, I refer you four paragraphs up to Section 1311(d)(1), which imposes another “REQUIREMENT … An Exchange shall be a governmental agency or nonprofit entity that is established by a State.” Or is the federal government again claiming that it can establish an Exchange that is established by a state?

Again, I don’t know anything about 31 U.S.C. 9701 or Circular A-25R. But the fact that HHS also cited them makes me think they lack confidence in their claim that Section 1311(d)(5)(A) authorizes them to do this. And the fact that they listed them after their Section 1311(d)(5)(A) claim makes me wonder if they even weaker.

I’ll be looking into this. But I would be interested to hear from anyone with expertise in 31 U.S.C. 9701 or Circular A-25R.