July 22, 2014 was arguably the most important day in the history of the implementation of the Affordable Care Act since the Supreme Court issued its ruling in the National Federation of Independent Business case in June of 2012. As no doubt most readers of this blog know by now, shortly after 10 a.m. the United States Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit handed down its decision in Halbig v. Burwell. Two judges ruled over a strong dissent that an Internal Revenue Service rule allowing federally facilitated exchanges to issue premium tax credits to low and moderate income Americans is invalid.
Approximately two hours later the Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals in Richmond, Virginia, unanimously upheld the IRS rule in King v. Burwell. Combined, the cases contain five judicial opinions, three in the Halbig case and two in King. Four of the six judges voted to uphold the rule, two to strike it down.
The issue in the cases is this: The ACA authorizes the IRS to provide premium tax credits to individuals with household incomes between 100 and 400 percent of the federal poverty level who are not eligible for other minimum essential coverage (such as affordable and adequate employer coverage, Medicaid, or Medicare). Premium tax credits are, however, only available to individuals who purchase coverage through the exchanges.
The ACA requests that the states establish exchanges, and sixteen states and the District of Columbia have done so. The ACA also, however, authorizes the federal government to establish exchanges in states that fail to set up their own exchanges. The federal government has done so in 34 states and is operating the individual exchange for two more. The IRS regulation allows premium tax credits to be awarded to eligible individuals in both states with state-operated exchanges and states with federal exchanges.
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