The “what will Congress do” news leads can now stop. The Supreme Court issued its decision in King v. Burwell and Congress does not need to fix anything because, by a vote of 6-3 in an opinion written by Chief Justice John Roberts, the Supreme Court held that the subsidy provisions of the ACA are not broken, and that individuals who purchase insurance through the Federal Exchange are eligible for ACA subsidies. In a nutshell, the Court held that the most reasonable reading of the ACA provision making credits available to individuals who purchased insurance on an exchange “established by the State” makes tax credits available to individuals who purchased insurance through the Federal Exchange. The decision delves deeply into health insurance policy concepts as well as the dark-art of statutory interpretation and the underlying chaotic legislative process to find, ultimately, that it was “implausible” that Congress intended to limit tax credits to individuals who purchased insurance through a State Exchange. See King, 576 U.S. __ (2015), slip op. at 17.
At the policy level, the Court clearly understood that the three main pieces of the ACA are “interlocking.” Id. at 1. Community rating and guaranteed issuance by insurers, and mandated purchase by individuals, are underpinned by subsidies for individuals who cannot afford what they have been told they must purchase. The Court discussed the health reform precedents in states like Massachusetts and New York at length, and even used the term “death spiral,” to make clear that it understood the carrot and stick approach embodied in the ACA. Id. at 15. Taking away the “carrot” – tax credits – that makes insurance affordable for large swathes of the population will make the scheme completely untenable in states that have not created an exchange, because too many people will fall out of the mandated purchase category by qualifying for an exemption where premiums would constitute too high a percentage of their income. This, in fact, was the premise of the lawsuit brought by challengers, who reside in Virginia, a state that has not created a State Exchange. Without access to the ACA’s tax credits, their income would be low enough that they would no longer be subject to the ACA’s mandated purchase provisions, which is what they sought.