US Supreme Court Upholds ACA Tax Credits for All Qualified Individuals Purchasing Health Insurance Through a Marketplace Exchanges

In King v. Burwell, the Court’s 6-justice majority concludes that denying ACA tax credits to individuals on federally-facilitated State exchanges is contrary to what Congress intended.

King v. Burwell, U.S. Supreme Court No. 14-114, decided June 25, 2015.

In another major challenge to the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act (“ACA”), the federal health reform law, the U.S. Supreme Court, on a 6-3 vote, upheld the Internal Revenue Service’s regulation extending federal tax credit support provided under the ACA to all qualified individuals enrolled in a marketplace Exchange regardless of whether the State elected to operate its own Exchange or exercised its option to have the federal government do so.

The Court’s decision rests on its interpretation of the law’s language rather than on constitutional grounds. Chief Justice Roberts, writing for the majority, said the challenged language is ambiguous; however, reading that language within the context of the ACA’s overall statutory framework compels an interpretation extending availability of the law’s tax credits to all qualified individuals purchasing coverage through an Exchange whether state-operated or federally-facilitated. The limited reading furthered by the petitioners “would destabilize the individual insurance market in any State with a Federal Exchange, and likely create the very ‘death spirals’ that Congress intended the Act to avoid.”

The limited reading furthered by the petitioners “would destabilize the individual insurance market in any State with a Federal Exchange, and likely create the very ‘death spirals’ that Congress intended the Act to avoid.”

The petitioners in King v. Burwell specifically pointed to ACA language making tax credits available to low and moderate income individuals purchasing health insurance coverage through an “Exchange established by the State.” The government argued in response that each State is required by the ACA “to establish” a marketplace Exchange and may do so, as allowed by the ACA, by either operating its own Exchange or defaulting to operation by the federal government. Facts before the Court showed that in 2014, 16 states operated their own Exchanges while 34 were federally facilitated. Of the 7.3 million individuals who purchased health insurance coverage through an Exchange, 5.4 million did so through federally-facilitated Exchanges and approximately 87% of those individuals were eligible for tax credits.

Petitioners’ arguments about the plain meaning of the challenged language are strong, the Court said, when viewed in isolation, but other language in the law, as highlighted by the Court, supports tax credit availability to qualified individuals purchasing insurance coverage on an Exchange regardless of operational source. Its task is to establish meaning within context. “A fair reading of legislation demands a fair understanding of the legislative plan.”

The Court noted that Congress based the ACA on three major reforms:

1) guaranteed issue and community rating requirements; 2) mandated individual insurance coverage at the risk of tax penalty; and 3) tax credits for individuals with household incomes between 100%-400% of federal poverty. Denying tax credits, a fundamental aspect of the ACA’s reform strategy, to individuals in federally-facilitated Exchange states would lead to substantially different operations and outcomes under this law in some states than in others, an implausible reading of what Congress intended. The Court referenced a study predicting that denying tax credits in federally-facilitated Exchange states would result in premium increases of 47% and enrollment decreases of 70% while another study predicted premium increases of 35% and enrollment decreases of 69%; collateral impacts also would result in insurance markets outside an Exchange. “[Tax] credits are necessary for the Federal Exchanges to function like their State Exchange counterparts, and to avoid the type of calamitous result that Congress plainly meant to avoid.”

The Court’s ruling is important to Iowa.

Iowa’s Exchange is federally-facilitated. Technically, Iowa operates a partnership Exchange, relying upon the participant enrollment technology of the federal government while retaining plan management and consumer assistance functions through the Iowa Insurance Division. Of the 45,000 Iowans on Iowa’s marketplace exchange in 2015, more than 33,000 were eligible for tax credit support.