One Court Strikes Down Obamacare Subsidies, Then Two Hours Later Another Court Unanimously Upholds Them
Conservatives trying to sabotage the Affordable Care Act have been pushing a new legal argument to cripple the law in recent months. It’s been brewing under the surface–until today, when two federal circuit court cases made it erupt into national news.
The controversy hinges on whether individuals residing in states with federally-facilitated marketplaces are eligible to receive insurance premium tax credits. Indeed, the law allows for states to set up their own exchanges, but if they choose not to, the federal government is charged with doing so on behalf of the state. Those challenging the law uncovered a drafting error in the text where it appears to limit the subsidies to individuals who obtain insurance through “an Exchange established by the State” — and not the federal exchange (which operates in 36 states). In other words, they want to employ an overt misreading in order to defund the Affordable Care Act in most states, and take away access to affordable health coverage for millions of Americans.
So how did the courts rule in today’s cases?
Case #1: Halbig v. Burwell
In the case Halbig v. Burwell, two conservative judges on the DC Circuit Court ruled against the law. Make no mistake: the conservative judges who ruled in the DC Circuit decision are biased against the Affordable Care Act. One of them, Judge Raymond Randolph even called the launch of the law “an unmitigated disaster” (despite 8 million people signing up) during the oral arguments and argued the law should be defunded. What’s more, conservative lawyers started pushing this argument and some of the plaintiffs in the lawsuit are GOP operatives.
Ultimately, however, this conservative ruling means very little. The Department of Justice already said it would ask for an “en banc” review of the decision — which includes all active judges on the D.C. Circuit and two senior judges. The premium tax credits will continue unchanged while the full court reviews the case. The en banc review will likely vacate the panel ruling because the conservatives’ legal argument makes no sense when put into the context of the entire ACA.
Case #2: King v. Burwell
Just two hours after the DC Circuit handed down its Halbig ruling, a panel of the Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals ruled in King v. Burwell unanimously in favor of the Affordable Care Act, saying people have access to premium tax credits regardless of where they live. In what might as well be a direct response to the Halbig opinion, 4th Circuit Senior Circuit Judge Andre Davis shuts down the idea that opponents of the ACA can “rely on [the Court’s] help to deny to millions of Americans desperately-needed health insurance through a tortured, nonsensical construction of a federal statute whose manifest purpose, as revealed by the wholeness and coherence of its text and structure, could not be more clear.”
No legalese there.
BOTTOM LINE: On the same day that two conservative DC Circuit judges ruled in Halbig against the ACA using an argument based on an overt misreading of the law, another panel of Circuit Court judges ruled unanimously in favor of the law. Most importantly, today’s decisions have no immediate impact on people’s ability to use premium tax credits to lower the cost of care. Down the road, when the courts resolve their disagreement — whether in the full DC Circuit Court, or in the Supreme Court — we expect that common sense and decades of legal precedent will prevail.