Commentary

If ObamaCare Survives, Legal Battle Has Just Begun

Even if the Affordable Care Act survives its first Supreme Court test — a ruling is due as early as today — the lawsuits won’t end. Citizens have already filed challenges to what critics call the law’s “death panel” and its impact on privacy rights, religious liberty and physician-owned hospitals. Still another potential lawsuit poses as great a threat to the law as the case now before the high court.

Under the guise of implementing the law, the Internal Revenue Service has announced it will impose a tax of up to $3,000 per worker on employers whom Congress has not authorized a tax. To make things more interesting: If the IRS doesn’t impose that unauthorized tax, the whole law could collapse.

The Act’s “employer mandate” taxes employers up to $3,000 per employee if they fail to offer required health benefits. But that tax kicks in only if their employees receive tax credits or subsidies to purchase a health plan through a state-run insurance “exchange.”

The IRS doesn’t have a leg to stand on here.”

This 2,000-page law is complex. But in one respect the statute is clear: Credits are available only in states that create an exchange themselves. The federal government might create exchanges in states that decline, but it cannot offer credits through its own exchanges. And where there can be no credits, there is nothing to trigger that $3,000 tax.

States are so reluctant to create exchanges that Secretary of Health and Human Services Kathleen Sebelius estimates she might have to operate them for 15 to 30 states. Even if she manages that feat, the law will still collapse without the employer mandate and tax credits.

Unauthorized Tax

To prevent that from happening, on May 18 the IRS finalized a rule making credits available through federal exchanges, contrary to the express language of the statute.

Because those credits trigger penalties against employers, the IRS is literally taxing employers and spending billions without congressional authorization. Estimates by the Urban Institute indicate that had this rule been in effect in 2011, it would have cost at least $14.3 billion for HHS to run exchanges for 30 states. About 75% of that is new federal spending; the remainder is forgone tax revenue.

The IRS doesn’t have a leg to stand on here. It has not cited any express statutory authority for its decision, because there is none. The language limiting tax credits to state-established exchanges is clear and consistent with the rest of the statute. The law’s chief sponsor, Senate Finance Committee chairman Max Baucus (D-Mont.), is on record explaining creation of an exchange is among the conditions states must satisfy before credits become available. Indeed, all previous drafts of the law also withheld credits from states to push them to cooperate.

Employers can sue

Under the Congressional Review Act, Congress has 60 days from the date of issue to block the rule. Reps. Scott DesJarlais, R-Tenn., and Phil Roe, R-Tenn., have introduced a resolution. It may receive a cold reception from President Obama, but “taxation without representation” is a difficult position to defend. If that approach fails, states that have refused to establish a health insurance exchange, and large employers the IRS will hit with this unauthorized tax, could challenge the rule in court.

The authors of the Affordable Care Act wrongly assumed states would be eager to implement it. If saving the law from that miscalculation requires letting the IRS tax Americans without authorization, then it is s not worth saving.

Jonathan Adler is a law professor and director of the Center for Business Law and Regulation at Case Western Reserve University. Michael Cannon is director of health policy studies at the Cato Institute.