June 25, 2015 Practice Points

SCOTUS Upholds Tax Subsidies for Healthcare.gov Consumers

The Court ruled in King v. Burwell that tax credits are available to consumers shopping on the Affordable Care Act’s federal marketplace, not just those shopping on state exchanges.

By Sarah Anna Santos

In a 6–3 decision, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled today in King v. Burwell that tax credits are available to consumers shopping on the Affordable Care Act’s federal marketplace, not just those shopping on state exchanges. Chief Justice John Roberts and Justices Anthony Kennedy, Ruth Bader Ginsburg, Stephen Breyer, Sonia Sotomayor, and Elena Kagan comprised the majority, while Justices Samuel Alito and Clarence Thomas joined Justice Antonin Scalia in a 21-page dissenting opinion.

The controversy arose out of the act’s language providing for subsidies to be distributed for marketplaces “established by the State.” The petitioners argued that the plain language limits the subsidies to state, not federal, marketplaces, while the respondents and proponents of the act—including the act’s architects—argued that subsidies were meant to be available on all exchanges, with the goal to cover all Americans. Proponents feared that limiting subsidies to state exchanges could seriously destabilize the act, rendering health insurance prohibitively expensive for many consumers. The Court agreed. While recognizing the language as “ambiguous,” the Court “reject[ed] petitioners’ interpretation because it would destabilize the individual insurance market in any State with a Federal Exchange, and likely create the very ‘death spirals’ that Congress designed the Act to avoid.”

In his dissent, Scalia decried the majority’s decision as reflecting the “philosophy that judges should endure whatever interpretive distortions it takes in order to correct a supposed flaw in the statutory machinery.” He stated that Congress, not the judiciary, was responsible for both making laws and mending them.

— Sarah Anna Santos, Hunton & Williams LLP, Charlotte, NC


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