Tag: regulation

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.

‘By Far the Broadest and Potentially Most Damaging of the Legal Challenges’ to ObamaCare

That’s how Kaiser Health News describes the legal challenge that Jonathan Adler and I outline in this paper and that Oklahoma attorney general Scott Pruitt has filed in federal court:

Supporters of the law scoff at the arguments…

But, confident of their case, some health law opponents, including Jonathan Adler of Case Western Reserve Law School, Michael Cannon of the libertarian Cato Institute and National Affairs editor Yuval Levin, are urging Republican-led governments to refuse to set up the online insurance purchasing exchanges, which would, as the argument goes, make their residents ineligible for the tax credits and subsidies. They say that this step also would gut the so-called employer mandate, which the law says will take effect in states where residents are eligible for such assistance…

As even some health law supporters concede, the claim that Congress denied to the federal exchanges the power to distribute tax credits and subsidies seems correct as a literal reading of the most relevant provisions. Those are sections 1311, 1321, and 1401, which provide that people are eligible for tax credits and subsidies only if “enrolled … through an Exchange established by the state” [emphasis added].

It’s technically not correct to say that Oklahoma’s complaint is a challenge to ObamaCare, however. That complaint does not challenge a single jot or tittle of the statute. Oklahoma is asking a federal court to force the IRS to follow the statute, and to prevent the Obama administration from imposing taxes on Oklahoma residents whom Congress expressly exempted. Oklahoma’s complaint is indeed “the broadest and potentially most damaging of the legal challenges” related to ObamaCare. But think about it: if the only way to save ObamaCare from such a fate is to give the president extra-constitutional powers to tax and spend money without congressional authorization, just how unstable is this law? And is it really worth saving?

Also, the article is a few months behind on the debate over congressional intent, and our ongoing debate with Timothy Jost (who has reversed himself on quite a few issues).

But overall, a good article.

Michigan Joins Growing List of States Not Gullible Enough to Implement an ObamaCare Exchange

A key committee in the Michigan legislature has voted down a proposal to create one of ObamaCare’s health insurance “exchanges.” The Speaker of the Michigan House pronounced a state-run Exchange dead:

It was my hope the committee would find that a state-run exchange afforded us more control over the unacceptable over-reach by the federal government regarding the health care of Michigan citizens. After due diligence, however, it is clear that there were too many unanswered questions for the committee to feel comfortable with a state-run exchange and we will not have one in Michigan…

The committee apparently was not able to get the answers to key questions or receive assurances about major concerns regarding costs for Michigan taxpayers, the ability to adopt a model the federal government wouldn’t ultimately control or the ability to protect religious freedom for Michigan citizens. Because the committee could not be assured that a state exchange was the best way to protect Michigan’s citizens, it is understandable why they did not approve the bill.

Under the terms of ObamaCare, Michigan’s refusal to create an Exchange exempts all Michigan employers from the law’s employer mandate, which imposes penalties of up to $2,000 per worker per year.

It exempts, by my count, 429,000 Michigan residents from the law’s individual mandate – a tax of $2,085 on families of four earning as little as $24,000.

And it gives the state, those employers, and those individual residents standing to file lawsuits to stop the IRS from ignoring the clear language of the law and imposing those taxes on them anyway.

ObamaCare Implementation News

Here’s some ObamaCare implementation news from around the interwebs:

  • Minnesota Facing Bigger Bill For State’s Health Insurance Exchange”: Kaiser Health News reports Minnesota has increased its spending projections for operating the state’s ObamaCare Exchange by somewhere between 35-80 percent for 2015. Spending on the Exchange will rise by another 19 percent in the following year.
  • The Wall Street Journal  defends the 25-30 states that aren’t gullible enough to create an Exchange and therefore take the blame for ObamaCare’s higher-than-projected costs.
  • Arizona Gov. Jan Brewer (R) has announced she will not implement an Exchange. That creates another potential state-plaintiff, millions of potential employer-plaintiffs, and (by my count) 430,000 potential individual plaintiffs who could join Oklahoma attorney general Scott Pruitt in challenging the IRS’s illegal ObamaCare taxes. It also means that Arizona can start luring jobs away from tax-happy California. There are four Hostess bakeries in California that might be looking to relocate.
  • I’m enjoying a friendly debate with The New Republic’s Jonathan Cohn and University of Michigan law professor Samuel Bagenstos over whether the those taxes really do violate federal law and congressional intent (spoiler alert: they do). I owe Bagenstos a response.
  • PolitiFact Georgia rated false my claim that operating an ObamaCare Exchange would violate Georgia law. I explain here why it is indeed illegal for Georgia (and 13 other states) to implement an Exchange.
  • ThinkProgress.org reports, “Romney’s Transition Chief Is Encouraging States To Implement Obamacare.” A better headline would have been, “Government Contractor Encourages More Government Contracts.”
  • The Washington Examiner editorializes, “In California…state regulators have warned…insurance premiums will rise by as much as 25 percent once the exchange comes online…That’s the best-case scenario.” And, “In 2014, seven Democratic Senate seats will be up for grabs in states Mitt Romney carried (Alaska, Arkansas, Louisiana, Montana, North Carolina, South Dakota and West Virginia). Unless Obama’s HHS bureaucrats pull off an unprecedented miracle of central planning, Obamacare could well sink Democrats again in 2014, the same way it did in 2010.”

I Have Been False*

*According to PolitiFact.

In an unconscious parody of everything that’s wrong with the “fact-checker” movement in journalism, PolitiFact Georgia (a project of the Atlanta Journal-Constitution) has rated false my claim that operating an ObamaCare Exchange would violate Georgia law. (For some of the “fact-checker” genre’s greatest worst hits, see Ben Domenech’s top 10 list.)

PolitiFact’s analysis is one-sided. It confuses opinions with facts. It was written with “no particular policy domain knowledge.” It therefore not only reaches the wrong result – it analyzes a claim I did not make and never would make.

PolitiFact began by saying that it was fact-checking the following claim, which I made in a November 9 opinion piece at National Review Online:

[O]perating an Obamacare exchange would be illegal in 14 states. Alabama, Arizona, Georgia, Idaho, Indiana, Kansas, Louisiana, Missouri, Montana, Ohio, Oklahoma, Tennessee, Utah, and Virginia have enacted either statutes or constitutional amendments (or both) forbidding state employees to participate in an essential exchange function: implementing Obamacare’s individual and employer mandates.

Lest anyone think I meant it would be illegal for the federal government to operate Exchanges in those states, the context and the text (“forbidding state employees”) of that opinion piece make it clear I was discussing whether states should establish Exchanges. Unfortunately, the context was lost on PolitiFact readers, because PolitiFact provided neither a citation nor a link to the opinion piece it was fact-checking.

In Georgia’s case, the relevant statute is that state’s version of the “Health Care Freedom Act” (GA. CODE ANN. § 31-1-11), enacted in 2010. It reads:

To preserve the freedom of citizens of this state to provide for their health care: No law or rule or regulation shall compel, directly or indirectly, any person, employer, or health care provider to participate in any health care system.

The statute defines “compel” as including “ ‘penalties or fines.”

PolitiFact notes that I cited that provision to “an Atlanta Journal-Constitution health reporter [Carrie Teegardin] via email.” Thus PolitiFact presumably had access to the rest of my November 9 email to Teegardin, in which I explained why that provision precludes Georgia from establishing an ObamaCare Exchange:

Determining eligibility for and distributing ObamaCare’s “premium assistance tax credits” is a key function of an Exchange. Those tax credits trigger penalties against employers (under the employer mandate) and residents (under the individual mandate).

Indeed, there are many ways Exchanges assist the federal government in the enforcement of those mandates. State-run Exchanges must report to the IRS on which residents have dropped their coverage and when (Section 1311(d)(4)(I)). State-run Exchanges must notify employers when one of their employees receives a tax credit  (Section 1411(e)(4)(B)(iii)). That very notification triggers penalties against the employer (Section 1513/I.R.C. Section 4980H(a)). State-run Exchanges must collect all the information the federal government needs to determine eligibility for tax credits and deliver it to the federal government (Section 1401/I.R.C. Section 36B(f)(3)) – a crucial component of enforcing both the individual and employer mandates. The  Secretary can require state-run Exchanges to verify that information for the federal government (Section 1411(d)), and state-run Exchanges must resolve any inconsistencies between the information provided by applicants and official records (Section 1411(e)). If a state-run Exchange can’t resolve an inconsistency between the application and the official records within a certain time period, it has to notify residents that they will be penalized under the individual mandate (Section 1411(e)(4)(B)(iv)). State-run Exchanges must maintain an appeals process for individuals and employers who believe they were wrongly assessed penalties (Section 1411(f)).

My email to Teegardin continued:

Ergo, if Georgia establishes an Exchange, then a Georgia law and state employees would be indirectly compelling employers and residents to participate in a health care system.

In other words, the activities required of an ObamaCare Exchange are exactly the sorts of things that the Health Care Freedom Acts in Georgia and 13 other states exist to prohibit those states’ employees from doing. In a November 15 opinion piece Atlanta Journal-Constitution, no less, I reiterated that same point: legislatures and voters in those 14 states have enacted state laws that make it illegal (and in some cases unconstitutional) for state employees to operate an ObamaCare Exchange.

Rather than evaluate that claim, PolitiFact asked a handful of Georgia scholars about something completely different: whether Georgia’s Health Care Freedom Act prevents the federal government from creating an Exchange for Georgia, or otherwise trumps federal law. It’s difficult to see how anyone who had read my two opinion pieces, much less my email to Teegardin, could think I was saying anything of the sort. Of course such a claim would be false; that’s why I never made it. (ObamaCare does itself give each state the power to stop the federal government from running an Exchange within its borders. But that’s a topic for another day.)

Then again, I could have set them straight. PolitiFact contacted me for help with this “fact-check.” I politely refused, citing my ongoing boycott of their organization. One might say my refusal to assist with this “fact-check” means I have no right to complain.

Another way of looking at it is that this episode validates my boycott. Consider how they responded to my refusal to help: Cannon won’t speak to us because he says we’re not reputable. Should we try to find someone else who might argue his side? Nah. PolitiFact could have proven me wrong by conducting a thorough analysis. Off the top of my head, I can think of seven other experts they might have consulted. A simple online search would have produced two attorneys who have threatened to sue the State of Arizona under the Health Care Freedom Amendment to its Constitution if state officials establish an Exchange. Instead, PolitiFact considered a discussion of my email auto-signature – “Tyrannis delenda est” – more worthy of inclusion in their “fact-check” than another expert who would take up my side.

My boycott of PolitiFact hasn’t succeeded in bringing about the desired behavior change. But if they keep this up, I don’t see how I can fail.

The IRS’s Illegal ObamaCare Taxes, Bagenstos Edition

As I posted a week ago today, Jonathan Adler and I have a paper titled, “Taxation Without Representation: The Illegal IRS Rule to Expand Tax Credits Under the PPACA.” Our central claims are:

  1. The Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act explicitly restricts its “premium-assistance tax credits” (and thus the “cost-sharing subsidies” and employer- and individual-mandate penalties those tax credits trigger) to health insurance “exchanges” established by states;
  2. The IRS has no authority to offer those entitlements or impose those taxes in states that opt not to create Exchanges; and
  3. The IRS’s ongoing attempt to impose those taxes and issue those entitlements through Exchanges established by the federal government is contrary to congressional intent and the clear language of the Act.

We hope to post an updated draft of our paper, with lots of new material, soon.

At the Disability Law blog and Balkinization, University of Michigan law professor Samuel Bagenstos writes that our claims are “deeply legally flawed.”

Like others before him, Bagenstos’s main argument in support of the IRS reduces to the absurd claim that the federal government can establish an Exchange that is established by a state. He also offers two new arguments. Each is a non sequitur, and like his main argument is contradicted by the express language of the statute.

As I have written before:

[T]he statute is crystal clear. It explicitly and laboriously restricts tax credits to those who buy health insurance in Exchanges “established by the State under section 1311.” There is no parallel language – none whatsoever – granting eligibility through Exchanges established by the federal government (section 1321).

(Bagenstos claims the statute’s tax-credit-eligibility provisions use the phrase “established by the State under section 1311” only twice. He neglects to mention: how the eligibility provisions refer to those limiting phrases an additional five times; that there is no language contradicting or creating any ambiguity about the limitation they create; and that the statute also restricts its “cost-sharing subsidies” to situations where “a credit is allowed” under those eligibility rules. At the risk of repeating myself, the eligibility rules for the credits and subsidies are so tightly worded, they seem designed to prevent precisely what the IRS is trying to do.)

Bagenstos correctly notes that Section 1321 directs the federal government to create Exchanges within states that fail to create their own. Like others before him, he takes that directive to mean that the phrase “established by the State under section 1311” in fact ”does not have the exclusionary meaning” you might think. The statute authorizes tax credits through federal Exchanges, he argues, because federal Exchanges are ”established by the State under section 1311.” The federal government, it turns out, can establish an Exchange that is established by a state.

Like others before him, Bagenstos finesses the absurdity of that claim by arguing that Section 1321 provides that a federal Exchange ”will stand in the shoes of a state-operated exchange.” So far as I can tell, the “stand in the shoes” trope was first advanced by Judy Solomon of the Center for Budget and Policy Priorities. It is based on a 180-degree misreading of Section 1321. If a state chooses not to dance, Section 1321 doesn’t instruct the federal government to step inside (read: commandeer) the state’s dancing shoes. It directs the federal government put on its own dancing shoes, and to follow all the dance steps listed in Title I. Since the language restricting tax credits to state-created Exchanges appears in—you guessed it—Title I, federal Exchanges are bound by that restriction.

Bagenstos’s second argument is that since it was not necessary for Congress to restrict tax credits to state-created Exchanges to overcome the “commandeering problem,” the statute does not do so. But that’s a non sequitur. Just because Congress didn’t have to do something doesn’t mean Congress didn’t do it. The express language of the statute says Congress did it.

Bagenstos’s third argument is that because the Senate Finance Committee didn’t have to restrict tax credits to state-created Exchanges in order to have jurisdiction to direct states to create them, the Committee-approved language—which is now law—must not do so. Again, that’s a non sequitur. And not only does the express language of the statute impose that restriction, but Senate Finance Committee chairman Max Baucus (D-MT) admitted that’s what he was doing.

Along the way, Bagenstos contradicts himself, Baucus, and Timothy Jost by categorically claiming, “Nor is there any reason to think that Congress would have intended to treat participants in state- and federally-operated exchanges differently,” while conceding the commandeering problem and the Finance Committee’s limited jurisdiction are two reasons why Congress might have intended to do so.

Bagenstos’s interpretation of the statute violates the “mere surplusage” canon of statutory interpretation. It violates the expressio unius est exclusio alterius canon of statutory interpretation. It violates common sense.

Like others before him, Bagenstos offers no rebuttal to Baucus’s admission that the  statute means exactly what it says, and nothing whatsoever from the legislative history that supports the IRS’s attempt to violate the express language of the statute by imposing taxes that Congress never authorized.