, , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,


The King vs. Burwell case now before the U.S. Supreme Court turns on whether the Affordable Care Act (ACA, or Obamacare) authorizes the payment of federal subsidies to consumers in states that do not sponsor their own state health insurance exchanges (up to 37 states, by some counts, depending on how certain “hybrid” exchanges are treated). In those states, Obamacare must be purchased on the federal (or a hybrid) exchange. Proponents of the law strongly desire the court to uphold the subsidies. However, the “plain language” of the law states that tax credits apply only to insurance purchased “through an Exchange established by the state.” That language does not appear to support the governments position in the case. In addition, one of the chief architects of the ACA, Jonathan Gruber, seemingly exposed the real intent of this provision:

What’s important to remember politically about this is if you’re a state and you don’t set up an exchange, that means your citizens don’t get their tax credits — but your citizens still pay the taxes that support this bill. So you’re essentially saying [to] your citizens you’re going to pay all the taxes to help all the other states in the country. I hope that that’s a blatant enough political reality that states will get their act together and realize there are billions of dollars at stake here in setting up these exchanges.

Who could have given a better description of the motive?

Others insist that the awkward language in the ACA on this point might have been a typographical error, that the tax credits were intended to subsidize purchases on any exchange, and that other wording in the legislation makes the legislative intent “ambiguous” at worst. Harvard law professor Laurence Tribe subscribes to this view. Tribe argues elsewhere that a ruling which finds federal-exchange subsidies illegal would throw the health insurance market into turmoil. Thus, taking a “consequentialist” approach, Tribe argues that the court should be reluctant to disrupt the market by ruling that subsidies were intended to be unavailable to states without exchanges under the ACA. This conveniently dismisses the fact that Obamacare itself has had and will continue to have so many negative “consequences.”

Obviously, not all agree that a ruling against the government would be such a travesty. A victory for the King plaintiffs would not increase anyone’s premiums. What it would do is prevent the IRS from shifting the burden of those premiums from enrollees to taxpayers. According to  Michael Cannon,  arguments against the plaintiff’s case have:

“… misrepresented the impact of a potential ruling for the plaintiffs by ignoring three crucial facts: (1) a victory for the Halbig [and King] plaintiffs would increase no one’s premiums, (2) if federal-Exchange enrollees lose subsidies, it is because those subsidies are, and always were, illegal, and (3) the winners under such a ruling would outnumber the losers by more than ten to one.

Nevertheless, the  consequentialist argument suggests that the court might be reluctant to rule against the government in the absence of a viable and immediate alternative to Obamacare. That belief helped motivate the most recent GOP plan, sponsored by Senators Richard Burr, Orin Hatch and Representative Fred Upton, which is due for a vote in the House of Representatives next week. This alternative has been called “Obamacare Lite” by some GOP critics, and it does retain a few of the most popular Obamacare provisions. However, it eliminates some highly intrusive aspects of the ACA (the individual and employer mandates) and attempts greater reliance on markets to control costs. This review in the Washington Free Beacon is mostly favorable. Peter Suderman at Reason explains that the proposal would involve tax credits designed to promote affordability, but they would be less distorting and less generous than under the ACA. Here is a fairly complete but mixed review of the GOP alternative.by Robert Laszewski:

My sense is that voters will end up liking parts of both Republican and Democratic ideas. They might ask a reasonable question: Why can’t we take the best from both sides? If Democrats would just admit Obamacare needs some pretty big fixes, and Republicans would be willing to work on making those fixes by putting some of these good ideas on the table, the American people would be a lot better off. In fact, I am hopeful that this is eventually what will happen once Obamacare’s failings become even more clear (particularly the real premium costs) and both sides come to understand that neither will have a unilateral political upper hand.

Laszewski is critical of the plan’s potential for creating a new set of winners and losers, but his objection losses sight of the fact that distortions in the ACA create so many winners and losers as to be indefensible. For example, the ACA limits differences in age rating, effectively transferring wealth from younger premium payers to much wealthier seniors, while the GOP plan loosens those limits. Similar distortions were created by Obamacare’s mandates, taxes, lack of choice in health coverage, revocation of individual coverage, poorly designed provider incentives and reduced physician reimbursements, to give a short list.

I like many of the ideas in the Republican plan, but it is a compromise. Its reforms should reduce the cost of coverage. It increases choice, leverages market incentives, and reduces tax distortions, including the tax advantage of employer-provided coverage. At the same time, it wholly or partially retains ACA provisions that make coverage more affordable at low incomes and provide continuous coverage for those with pre-existing conditions. It also encourages the creation of state pools for high-risk individuals. These provisions might or might not  mollify “consequentialist” sentiment on the Supreme Court, leading to a majority ruling against the government in King vs. Burwell. If not, and while the question before the court is more narrow, the irony would be for the court to uphold the many destructive consequences of Obamacare.