There is an old lawyers’ adage: “When the facts are on your side, argue the facts. When the law is on your side, argue the law. When neither are on your side, pound the table.” President Obama will deliver a speech today in which he pounds the table with the supposed successes of the Affordable Care Act. The address is part effort to influence the Supreme Court’s upcoming decision in King v. Burwell, part effort to spin a potential loss in that case.
The problem is, those supposed successes are not due to the ACA. They are the product, two federal courts have found, of billions of dollars of illegal taxes, borrowing, and spending imposed by the IRS at the behest of the president’s political appointees.
The president can pound the table all he wants about his theories of what Congress intended, or how, in his opinion, those illegal taxes have benefited America. No speech can change the fact that he signed into law a health care bill that makes it unmistakably clear that those taxes and subsidies are only available “through an Exchange established by the State.” If he didn’t like that part of the bill, he shouldn’t have signed it.
One of the issues underlying Halbig v. Sebelius and three similar lawsuits making their way through federal courts is whether Congress intentionally restricted the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act’s (PPACA) private health‐insurance subsidies to individuals who buy coverage through state‐established Exchanges. If so, that would mean the Internal Revenue Service’s decision to issue subsidies in the 34 states that did not establish Exchanges (i.e., that have federally established Exchanges) is illegal. For more on the IRS’s attempt to rewrite the PPACA in this fashion, click here.
On Twitter, a skeptic challenges my coauthor Jonathan Adler’s claim that Congress intended to withhold subsidies in states that did not establish Exchanges, arguing, “The exchanges serve no purpose at all absent subsidies.” (Read the entire exchange here.)
In legal jargon, the skeptic argues that a literal interpretation of the statutory language restricting subsidies to those enrolled “through an Exchange established by the State” would produce absurd results, and the courts should defer to the agency’s reasonable interpretation.
Exchanges, however, are regulatory bureaucracies that perform other functions and serve other purposes besides dispensing subsidies. The PPACA’s authors, the Obama administration, and the president himself have all acknowledged this.
- In 2008, Senate Finance Committee chairman Max Baucus wrote, “The Exchange would be an independent entity, the primary purpose of which would be to organize affordable health insurance options, create understandable, comparable information about those options, and develop a standard application for enrollment in a chosen plan.”
- In 2009, President Obama said that health insurance Exchanges “would allow families and some small businesses the benefit of one‐stop‐shopping for their health care coverage and enable them to compare price and quality and pick the plan that best suits their needs.”
- Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D‑NV) has said the PPACA “guarantees real choice and competition to keep insurers in check… By creating strong competition, we’ll reduce skyrocketing health care costs.”
- The PPACA’s Senate drafters wrote, “Insurers that jack up their premiums before the Exchanges begin will be excluded – a powerful incentive to keep premiums affordable.”
- The Internal Revenue Service’s proposed tax‐credit rule issued August 17, 2011 explains, “Exchanges will offer Americans competition and choice. Insurance companies will compete for business on a level playing field, driving down costs. Consumers will have a choice of health plans to fit their needs and Exchanges will give individuals and small businesses the same purchasing power as big businesses.”
In fact, the Exchanges are supposed to perform more than a dozen functions besides issuing subsidies. Here are some of the ways the PPACA’s health insurance Exchanges attempt to serve the goals of “one‐stop shopping,” price and quality comparisons, expanding choice and competition, and reducing health insurance premiums, even in the absence of subsidies:
- Facilitate the creation of SHOP Exchanges, where premium‐assistance tax credits are not available. §1311(b).
- Certify, recertify, and decertify qualified health plans. §1311(d)(4)(A).
- Maintain a toll‐free telephone hotline. §1311(d)(4)(B).
- Monitor premiums and require issuers of QHPs to justify premium increases. §1311(e)(2).
- Monitor QHPs’ compliance with hospital quality measures. §1311(h).
- Monitor QHPs’ compliance with mental health parity regulations. §1311(j).
- Require transparency from issuers of QHPs, including periodic financial disclosures; and oversee compilation of information on enrollment, disenrollment, the number of claims that are denied, rating practices, cost‐sharing and payments with respect to any out‐of‐network coverage, enrollee and participant rights, and “other information as determined appropriate by the Secretary.” §1311(e)(3)(A).
- Collect data from QHPs on the quality of care, including “case management, care coordination, chronic disease management, medication and care compliance initiatives…, prevent[ing] hospital readmissions through a comprehensive program for hospital discharge that includes patient‐centered education and counseling, comprehensive discharge planning, and post‐discharge reinforcement by an appropriate health care professional…, reduc[ing] medical errors through the appropriate use of best clinical practices, evidence based medicine, and health information technology…, [and] the implementation of wellness and health promotion activities [and] activities to reduce health and health care disparities.” §1311(g).
- Rate QHPs based on quality, price, and patient satisfaction. §1311(d)(4)(D).
- Maintain a website with standardized comparative information on qualified health plans. §1311(d)(4)(C), (E).
- Make eligibility determinations and enrolling applicants for Medicaid and SCHIP. §1311(d)(4)(F).
- Issue exemptions from the individual mandate, and certify such exemptions to the IRS. §1311(d)(4)(H).
- Facilitate the purchase of health insurance across state lines. §1311(f).
- Establish a Navigator program and awarding grants to Navigators. §1311(i).
- Facilitate the merger of the individual and small‐group markets (at each state’s discretion). §1312(c)(3).
- Provide an employee benefit (health insurance coverage) for members of Congress. §1312(d)(3)(D).
Nor is the PPACA the only piece of legislation Congress debated that would allow for Exchanges without premium subsidies. As I have explained elsewhere, the Democrats who controlled the Senate’s Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions (HELP) Committee in 2009 approved a bill that would have withheld similar Exchange subsidies in states that failed to implement that bill’s employer mandate. This is true whether the state established its own Exchange, or the federal government established one for the state. Since the HELP Committee allowed for the creation of both state‐run and federal Exchanges without subsidies, its drafters presumably saw the Exchange as serving more than just that one purpose.
Twelve Senate Democrats voted for the HELP Committee bill. Why should we be surprised that they – and the remaining Senate Democrats, and the vast majority of House Democrats, and President Obama – would approve the PPACA’s similar provisions?
Update: This post has been updated to include the 2008 Baucus quote.
Update #2: This post has been updated to include the quote from the IRS’s proposed tax‐credit rule.
The D.C. Circuit is due to rule any day now, quite possibly today, on Halbig v. Sebelius. For those who haven’t been watching the vigil I keep over at DarwinsFool.com, Newsweek calls Halbig “the case that could topple ObamaCare.”
First a little background. The Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act offers refundable “premium‐assistance tax credits” to qualified taxpayers who purchase health insurance “through an Exchange established by the State.” The PPACA contains no language authorizing tax credits through the 34 Exchanges established by the federal government in states that declined to establish one themselves, nor does it authorize the Internal Revenue Service to treat those federally established Exchanges as if they had been “established by the State.” Offering benefits only in compliant states was proposed by numerous Republicans and Democrats in 2009, for obvious reasons: Congress cannot force states to implement federal programs, but it can create incentives for states to act, such as by offering health‐insurance subsidies to residents of compliant states.
Halbig is one of four cases challenging the IRS’s decision to rewrite the statute and offer tax credits in the 34 states with federal Exchanges. The plaintiffs are individuals and employers who are injured by the IRS’s overreach because, due to the PPACA’s many inter‐locking pieces, issuing those illegal tax credits subjects them to illegal penalties.
Since a ruling may come today (or some Tuesday or Friday hence, as is the D.C. Circuit’s habit), here are some materials for those who want to hit the ground running.
- “A Reference Guide To The ‘Halbig’ Cases: Can The IRS Issue ACA Subsidies Through Federal Exchanges?” is a complete guide to everything ever been written about the Halbig cases. Statutes, legislative history, regulations, court documents, news reports, opinion pieces, everything. A good place to harvest hyperlinks.
- Here are summaries of amicus briefs filed in Halbig by several groups in support of the plaintiffs, and briefs in support of the IRS filed by public‐health scholars, members of Congress and state legislators, the hospital lobby, the health‐insurance lobby, AARP, left‐leaning economists, and Families USA.
- “Who Needs Hobby Lobby When You’ve Got Halbig? Yesterday’s Appellate Arguments In Halbig v. Sebelius” summarizes the oral arguments before the D.C. Circuit.
- “What Kagan And Scalia Might Say About Halbig v. Sebelius” shows how the Supreme Court has recently dealt with issues similar to those presented in Halbig. See also “What the Supreme Court said about the IRS tax credit rule” by Volokh Conspiracy blogger, law professor, and my sometime coauthor Jonathan Adler.
- “King v. Sebelius: If The Plain Meaning Of The ACA Was Good Enough For Congress, Then It’s Good Enough For The Fourth Circuit” is a write‐up of oral arguments in a similar case (King v. Sebelius) heard by the 4th Circuit.
- “Modern Healthcare’s Take On Halbig v. Sebelius Is A Comedy Of Errors” and “In Which Modern Healthcare Questions My Honesty” show how reporters often misstate basic facts about these cases.
- Like the last two, “The IRS’s Case In Halbig v. Sebelius Is Crumbling, With A Little Help From Its Friends (UPDATED)” shows how many of the arguments made by the IRS’s supporters, including law professors like Yale’s Abbe Gluck, actually undermine the IRS’s case in court. “Hafa Adai: Obama Administration Contradicts Its Own Brief In ‘The Case That Could Topple ObamaCare’ ” shows that even the Obama administration has gotten in on that game.
- My congressional testimony on “The President’s Failure To Execute Faithfully The PPACA” puts Halbig in a broader context.
Update: The D.C. Circuit has handed down rulings for today, and Halbig is not among them. Click here to check on the court’s most recent rulings.
Today, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit will hear oral arguments in Halbig v. Sebelius, one of four cases that Jonathan Adler and I helped spur with our 2013 Health Matrix article, “Taxation Without Representation: The Illegal IRS Rule to Expand Tax Credits Under the PPACA.” Critics call Halbig “the most significant existential threat to the Affordable Care Act.” In anticipation of the hearing, the Wall Street Journal wrote a lengthy editorial explaining the issues. Excerpts:
Halbig v. Sebelius involves no great questions of constitutional interpretation. The plaintiffs are merely asking the judges to tell the Administration to faithfully execute the plain language of the statute that Congress passed and President Obama signed.
The Affordable Care Act — at least the version that passed in 2010 — instructed the states to establish insurance exchanges, and if they didn’t the Health and Human Services Department was authorized to build federal exchanges. The law says that subsidies will be available only to people who enroll “through an Exchange established by the State.” The question in Halbig is whether these taxpayer subsidies can be distributed through the federal exchanges, as the Administration insists…
In 2012, HHS and the Internal Revenue Service arrogated to themselves the power to rewrite the law and published a regulation simply decreeing that subsidies would be available through the federal exchanges too. The IRS devoted only a single paragraph to its deviation from the statute, even though the “established by a State” language appears nine times in the law’s text. The rule claims that an exchange established on behalf of a state is a “federally established state‐established exchange,” as if HHS is the 51st state.
Careful spadework into ObamaCare’s legislative history by Case Western Reserve law professor Jonathan Adler and Michael Cannon of the Cato Institute has demonstrated that this jackalope rule‐making was contrary to Congress’s intent…
Mr. Obama has conceded that “obviously we didn’t do a good enough job in terms of how we crafted the law.” The right and only lawful way to repair ObamaCare is through another act of Congress. In Halbig, the judiciary can remind the Obama Administration of this basic constitutional truth.
Jonathan Adler critiques the Halbig district court’s ruling in favor of the IRS here.
Find lots of commentary by me on the Halbig cases at DarwinsFool.com.
This reference guide contains all the information you could want about these cases — and more.
A Wall Street Journal editorial surmises that Senate Democrats eliminated the filibuster for non‐Supreme Court judicial appointments so they could pack the U.S. Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit with judges that would block an important ObamaCare case called Halbig v. Sebelius:
Democrats surprised Republicans in November with how quickly they dismantled the filibuster, and we are beginning to see why. Another major challenge to ObamaCare is being heard by a D.C. Circuit district judge, this time concerning whether subsidies can be delivered by the federal exchanges. Then there’s the new IRS proposed rule curtailing the political speech of 501(c)(4) groups. This rule will also probably make its way to the D.C. Circuit, and blocking GOP‐leaning groups from politicking is part of the Democratic strategy for holding the Senate in 2014.
Democrats figure they have a better chance to win if they have more nominees on the appeals court — either in a three‐judge panel or en banc. The plaintiffs could appeal to the Supreme Court if they lose, but you never know if the Justices will take a case.
Case Western Reserve University law professor Jonathan H. Adler and I laid the groundwork for Halbig and three other cases challenging President Obama’s attempt to tax Americans without congressional authorization in this law‐journal article.
That’s what Department of Justice attorney Joel McElvain said in open court last week. And thus the Obama administration reversed itself once again on whether the individual mandate is a tax.
Relatedly, a Clinton‐appointed federal judge has dealt a second blow to the IRS and the credibility of its defenders. He called one of the administration’s arguments ‘silly,’ and promised expedited consideration of the Obamacare challenge, Halbig v. Sebelius. Read all about these in my latest Darwin’s Fool post at Forbes.com.
Halbig v. Sebelius is one of two federal lawsuits challenging an illegal IRS rule that attempts to issue ObamaCare’s tax credits in the 34 states that have opted not to establish one of the law’s health insurance “exchanges.” Yesterday, attorneys for the Halbig plaintiffs filed a motion for a preliminary injunction, requested a hearing on that motion before October 1, and filed a second motion also seeking to expedite the case. The first motion requests:
an Order enjoining [the government], pending resolution of the litigation, from applying the IRS regulations extending eligibility for premium assistance subsidies under the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act to individuals who purchase health coverage through Exchanges established by the federal government.
If the court grants that request, ObamaCare implementation will come to a screeching halt.
The Halbig plaintiffs make a compelling case that the IRS is violating federal law, and that the court must resolve the issue before January 1, 2014. If a resolution comes after that date, the plaintiffs will be irreparably injured because they “will be forced either to comply with the ACA’s individual mandate or risk incurring a penalty, and…will further be entirely and forever precluded from purchasing catastrophic coverage for 2014.” In addition:
the balance of the equities and public interest both cut strongly in favor of resolving the legal validity of the IRS Rule now, before billions of taxpayer dollars are illegally expended and before employers make unalterable benefit decisions premised on the Rule. If a ruling invalidating the IRS Rule is delayed until after these events, the result would be utter chaos…It serves everyone’s interests — those of Plaintiffs, the Government, and the public alike — to obtain a prompt ruling on the legal validity of the IRS Rule, so that there will be no need subsequently to confront the logistical nightmare of trying to unscramble and undo the unlawful expenditure of billions of federal dollars. [Emphasis in original.]
Even if the government ultimately prevails, as health‐benefits expert Thomas Haynes explains in a supplemental filing, it would unnecessarily and irreparably injure some employers and employees if that happens in 2014 instead of 2013. Brokers who are aware that the availability of these tax credits is uncertain in 34 states will counsel employers not to adjust their employee benefits to take advantage of that still‐uncertain new landscape. Those employers and employees would then be locked into spending more on health insurance in 2014 than they would if the litigation had been resolved in 2013.
The Obama administration, however, is in no hurry. In Halbig, for example, government lawyers have blown through the legal deadlines for responding to key plaintiff motions, deadlines that passed months ago. Indeed, they appear to be using every tactic at their disposal to guarantee these cases will not be resolved this year.
Whether the Obama administration’s lawyers simply have a lot on their plate, or are intentionally trying to prejudice judges against ruling for the plaintiffs — by guaranteeing that such a ruling would result in maximum chaos — a preliminary injunction is in order.