It’s spring in Washington, and time to resume one of the capital’s favorite sports. No, not baseball, but throwing mud at the Supreme Court. Pending cases include the legal status of same-sex marriage and whether the IRS can provide billions of dollars in Obamacare subsidies without explicit congressional authorization. Partisans have launched a preemptive bid to undermine the legitimacy of the forthcoming decisions by accusing the court of “activism” for involving itself at all.
These increasingly transparent attempts to discredit the court should be rejected.Every case involving plausible abuses of power requires judicial engagement — conscientious, impartial truth-seeking, grounded in evidence — rather than reflexive deference to the political branches.
Take the Obamacare case. At issue in King v. Burwell is a section of the Affordable Care Act concerning tax credits for buying health insurance from government-operated healthcare exchanges. Congress wanted states to set up their own exchanges, but it lacks constitutional authority to force them. So Congress opted for a stick-and-carrot approach, authorizing tax credits for insurance policies purchased “through an Exchange established by the State.” As a backup, the ACA directed federal bureaucrats to set up federally operated exchanges in states that declined to set up their own.
Forbes– By Jonathan Ingram, Nic Horton and Josh Archambault – Mr. Ingram is Research Director, Mr. Horton is Policy Impact Specialist and Mr. Archambault is a Senior Fellow at the Foundation for Government Accountability.
Last week, the Foundation for Government Accountability released a groundbreaking poll of voters in federal exchange states that provides valuable insight into how voters want policymakers to respond to the pending King v. Burwell Supreme Court ruling.
Heather Higgins: The thing that I do that spends actually most of my time and is not something that is terribly sexy for donors, but that I think is hugely important is work on Obamacare. That’s kind of how I backed into the political stuff. I had been very involved in 2009 in trying to help fund and orchestrate and message the entire battle against Obamacare because there was no infrastructure on the right that was really set up to do that. And then coming out of that had the epiphany that since Reid and Pelosi were not moving, maybe the way to do that was to go into the Massachusetts race for Ted Kennedy’s seat, that special election which was being run on the issues that had polled well in September, which were the national security issue and the economy, and instead redefine the race as being about healthcare and the 41st vote, which every political consultant I took that to thought that I was on drugs and that that was a waste of money. So we wound up being the only independent expenditure in Scott Brown’s first race to make it be about healthcare and the 41st vote. [Applause.] Thank you.
And then in the summer of 2010 I was appalled that nobody was talking about Obamacare so we created the Repeal Pledge which is actually the only pledge about Obamacare that still exists of the ones that were started then; and coming out of the 2010 election where we had used it, I looked for the group to join to think strategically about not working at cross purposes between what the Senate might do, the House might do, the court case from Florida that was then rising up to the Supreme Court, what outside grassroots group could do, and there was none. So I’ve started something called the Repeal Coalition which meets every 3 to 4 weeks in the Capitol. It has leadership staff from both the House and the Senate. It has a lot of staff from different Members and Senators. It has a lot of outside groups that are policy wonks to grassroots groups, and we talk about all the things we wish that would get done that don’t get done, and we talk about things that sound like good ideas and figure out if they’re dumb ideas and try and prevent dumb things happening. There is an overriding purpose to this which is remembering, of course, the long-term goal.
During the recent oral argument in King v. Burwell — the Supreme Court case deciding if providing subsidies to buy health insurance in the 36 states utilizing federal health care exchanges is allowed under the Affordable Care Act (ACA) — Justice Kennedy suggested that disallowing subsidies might be unconstitutionally coercive because “states are being told either create your own exchange, or we’ll send your insurance market into a death spiral.” Are “death spirals” real, or just a way to frighten the public?
The death spiral will purportedly happen like this: disallowing federal exchange subsidies will make insurance less affordable for the 87% of federal exchange enrollees currently receiving subsidies. These people will no longer be required to buy insurance since the ACA’s individual mandate only applies to individuals who have access to affordable insurance. Since the ACA imposes community rating, requiring roughly the same premium for all individuals in a given plan with only small adjustments for their risk characteristics, and guaranteed issue of insurance regardless of the enrollee’s health, the old and unhealthy will continue to buy coverage but the young and healthy will forego coverage. The resulting higher risk pool of enrollees will increase the average cost of individuals remaining in the non-group insurance market, both on and off the exchanges, resulting in increased premiums that will drive out more low cost, healthy patients eventually destroying the market.
Two economic simulations predict that “adverse selection,” where healthier people leave the insurance market and sicker people stay in causing premiums to rise, will occur if the King plaintiffs prevail. The Urban Institute predicted discontinuing federal exchange subsidies would result in premium increases of 35% and enrollment declines of 69% in the individual health insurance market. The Rand Corporation made similar predictions.
But it is hard to reconcile these forecasts with studies of earlier state insurance market “reforms” that created market conditions similar to those that would result if federal exchange subsidies are disallowed. These studies suggest adverse selection would be minimal and would not lead to a “death spiral,” that is, it would not lead to a self-reinforcing cycle of adverse selection in which each time premiums rise, more people exit, leading to a sicker, more expensive risk pool and market collapse.
On Monday, the Supreme Court denied certiorari in Coons v. Lew, a constitutional challenge to provisions in the Affordable Care Act (ACA) creating the Independent Payment Advisory Board (IPAB), an independent federal agency charged with responsibility for controlling the growth of health-care costs by constraining the growth of Medicare.
IPAB is controversial, and potentially unconstitutional (as even fervent ACA advocates admit). Nonetheless, the denial of certiorari was to be expected. IPAB is not yet operational, so (as the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit concluded) a challenge of this sort isn’t ripe. If and when the IPAB is up and running — and begins making changes to Medicare that affect providers or beneficiaries — there will be ample time to consider the constitutionality of Congress’s creation.
Alternatively, Congress could repeal or reform IPAB itself, as some have suggested. Given that the text of the ACA expressly limits Congress’s ability to amend these portions of the law, such legislative action could itself prompt litigation and perhaps even High Court review.
The Court’s denial of certiorari in the Coons case does not mean the justices won’t revisit the ACA next term. Another cert petition is pending in Mayhew v. Burwell, Maine’s challenge to the constitutionality of the ACA’s maintenance of eligibility requirements for Medicaid. According to Maine (and supporting amici), the federal government’s threat to withhold all Medicaid funding should Maine restrict Medicaid eligibility below pre-existing levels is unconstitutionally coercive and violates the Medicaid holding of NFIB v. Sebelius.
If, as oral argument in King v. Burwell suggested, some of the justices are interested in revisiting federalism concerns about the ACA, Mayhew is a potential vehicle. Indeed, although the U.S. Court of Appeals for the First Circuit found Maine’s arguments unconvincing, Maine’s position would get a boost should the the federal government prevail in King on federalism grounds.