King v. Burwell: An Excerpt
Editor's note: The following is an excerpt from the syllabus of King v. Burwell, outlining Chief Justice John Roberts's majority opinion. Citations have been removed.
[The Affordable Care Act] requires the creation of an "Exchange" in each State — basically, a marketplace that allows people to compare and purchase insurance plans. The Act gives each State the opportunity to establish its own Exchange, but provides that the Federal Government will establish "such Exchange" if the State does not. Relatedly, the Act provides that tax credits "shall be allowed" for any "applicable taxpayer," but only if the taxpayer has enrolled in an insurance plan through "an Exchange established by the State under [42 U. S. C. §18031]." An IRS regulation interprets that language as making tax credits available on "an Exchange," "regardless of whether the Exchange is established and operated by a State . . . or by HHS."
Petitioners are four individuals who live in Virginia, which has a Federal Exchange. They do not wish to purchase health insurance. In their view, Virginia's Exchange does not qualify as "an Exchange established by the State under [42 U. S. C. §18031]," so they should not receive any tax credits. That would make the cost of buying insurance more than eight percent of petitioners' income, exempting them from the Act's coverage requirement. As a result of the IRS Rule, however, petitioners would receive tax credits. That would make the cost of buying insurance less than eight percent of their income, which would subject them to the Act's coverage requirement.
Petitioners challenged the IRS Rule in Federal District Court. The District Court dismissed the suit, holding that the Act unambiguously made tax credits available to individuals enrolled through a Federal Exchange. The Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit affirmed. The Fourth Circuit viewed the Act as ambiguous, and deferred to the IRS's interpretation under Chevron U. S. A. Inc. v. Natural Resources Defense Council, Inc.
Held: Section 36B's tax credits are available to individuals in States that have a Federal Exchange.
(a) When analyzing an agency's interpretation of a statute, this Court often applies the two-step framework announced in Chevron. But Chevron does not provide the appropriate framework here. The tax credits are one of the Act's key reforms and whether they are available on Federal Exchanges is a question of deep "economic and political significance"; had Congress wished to assign that question to an agency, it surely would have done so expressly. And it is especially unlikely that Congress would have delegated this decision to the IRS, which has no expertise in crafting health insurance policy of this sort.
It is instead the Court's task to determine the correct reading of Section 36B. If the statutory language is plain, the Court must enforce it according to its terms. But oftentimes the meaning — or ambiguity — of certain words or phrases may only become evident when placed in context. So when deciding whether the language is plain, the Court must read the words "in their context and with a view to their place in the overall statutory scheme."
(b) When read in context, the phrase "an Exchange established by the State under [42 U. S. C. §18031]" is properly viewed as ambiguous. The phrase may be limited in its reach to State Exchanges. But it could also refer to all Exchanges — both State and Federal — for purposes of the tax credits. If a State chooses not to follow the directive in Section 18031 to establish an Exchange, the Act tells the Secretary of Health and Human Services to establish "such Exchange." And by using the words "such Exchange," the Act indicates that State and Federal Exchanges should be the same. But State and Federal Exchanges would differ in a fundamental way if tax credits were available only on State Exchanges — one type of Exchange would help make insurance more affordable by providing billions of dollars to the States' citizens; the other type of Exchange would not. Several other provisions in the Act — e.g., Section 18031(i)(3)(B)'s requirement that all Exchanges create outreach programs to "distribute fair and impartial information concerning . . . the availability of premium tax credits under section 36B" — would make little sense if tax credits were not available on Federal Exchanges.
The argument that the phrase "established by the State" would be superfluous if Congress meant to extend tax credits to both State and Federal Exchanges is unpersuasive. This Court's "preference for avoiding surplusage constructions is not absolute." And rigorous application of that canon does not seem a particularly useful guide to a fair construction of the Affordable Care Act, which contains more than a few examples of inartful drafting. The Court nevertheless must do its best, "bearing in mind the ‘fundamental canon of statutory construction that the words of a statute must be read in their context and with a view to their place in the overall statutory scheme.'"
(c) Given that the text is ambiguous, the Court must look to the broader structure of the Act to determine whether one of Section 36B's "permissible meanings produces a substantive effect that is compatible with the rest of the law."
Here, the statutory scheme compels the Court to reject 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. Under petitioners' reading, the Act would not work in a State with a Federal Exchange. As they see it, one of the Act's three major reforms — the tax credits — would not apply. And a second major reform — the coverage requirement — would not apply in a meaningful way, because so many individuals would be exempt from the requirement without the tax credits. If petitioners are right, therefore, only one of the Act's three major reforms would apply in States with a Federal Exchange.
The combination of no tax credits and an ineffective coverage requirement could well push a State's individual insurance market into a death spiral. It is implausible that Congress meant the Act to operate in this manner. Congress made the guaranteed issue and community rating requirements applicable in every State in the Nation, but those requirements only work when combined with the coverage requirement and tax credits. It thus stands to reason that Congress meant for those provisions to apply in every State as well.
(d) The structure of Section 36B itself also suggests that tax credits are not limited to State Exchanges. Together, Section 36B(a), which allows tax credits for any "applicable taxpayer," and Section 36B(c)(1), which defines that term as someone with a household income between 100 percent and 400 percent of the federal poverty line, appear to make anyone in the specified income range eligible for a tax credit. According to petitioners, however, those provisions are an empty promise in States with a Federal Exchange. In their view, an applicable taxpayer in such a State would be eligible for a tax credit, but the amount of that tax credit would always be zero because of two provisions buried deep within the Tax Code. That argument fails because Congress "does not alter the fundamental details of a regulatory scheme in vague terms or ancillary provisions."
(e) Petitioners' plain-meaning arguments are strong, but the Act's context and structure compel the conclusion that Section 36B allows tax credits for insurance purchased on any Exchange created under the Act. Those 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.