Courts issue contradictory rulings on Affordable Care Act (Tulsa World)

By Randy Krehbiel

A key component of the Affordable Care Act utilized by 55,000 Oklahomans was thrown into question Tuesday when separate federal appeals courts came down on opposite sides of the issue.

Oklahoma Republicans and opponents of the ACA were quick to proclaim victory over the ruling favorable to their cause, but they were largely silent over the second decision.

In a 2-1 opinion, a three-judge panel from the District of Columbia Court of Appeals ruled that a glitch in the law bars the Internal Revenue Service from distributing premium subsidies to those buying health insurance on federally run exchanges, as opposed to state exchanges. The decision reversed a district court’s ruling in Halbig v. Burwell, a suit brought by an employer seeking to invalidate the ACA’s employer mandate.

The D.C. court’s majority opinion is in line with the argument made by Oklahoma Attorney General Scott Pruitt in a suit now in federal district court in Muskogee.

Pruitt said the D.C. decision gave him “great confidence” that he will prevail in his case.

A few hours after the D.C. decision was announced, a three-judge panel of the Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals in Richmond, Va., said the subsidies can be distributed to individuals buying insurance on federal exchanges. In upholding a lower court decision in King v. Burwell, the court said Congress clearly intended the subsidies to apply to both state- and federally run exchanges.

The White House said the subsidies will continue while the legal situation is sorted out. The administration is expected to ask the full 11-member D.C. court to review the three-judge panel’s decision.

It is thought the split decision makes it all the more likely a final decision will rest with the U.S. Supreme Court.

A section of the ACA says the subsidies will be made available to those using state exchanges. Oklahoma and most other states have refused to implement their own exchanges, instead leaving residents to rely on federal exchanges.

“Early on, we recognized this major problem with how the Obama administration was implementing the Affordable Care Act,” Pruitt said in a statement.

“Other states and private plaintiffs … followed our lead in challenging the law and today’s ruling by the D.C. Circuit Court of Appeals is a victory for Oklahoma’s lawsuit and others challenging the law. Our lawsuit challenges the administration’s attempt to ‘fix’ the health-care law through executive fiat.

“This ruling gives us great confidence that Oklahoma’s lawsuit will ultimately prevail.”

U.S. Sen. Jim Inhofe and 1st District Congressman Jim Bridenstine, both Oklahoma Republicans, praised the D.C. court decision. Neither commented on the Fourth Circuit decision.

“Courts are beginning to agree that Obamacare is riddled with problems and that the current administration is deliberately ignoring its own flawed law,” Inhofe said.

Bridenstine said the ruling “eviscerated Obamacare.”

“The language and the intent of the law is clear,” he said. “The intent was to encourage state exchanges and not to offer subsidies through a federal exchange.”

To this point, most judges have not found that argument persuasive. Jonathan Small of the Oklahoma Council of Public Affairs, which supports Pruitt’s lawsuit, said that’s why the D.C. decision is more meaningful than the Fourth Circuit’s.

“It bolsters the appeal,” Small said.

David Blatt of the Oklahoma Policy Institute, which generally supports the ACA, said eliminating the subsidies “will be devastating to tens of thousands of Oklahomans who have been able to purchase health insurance through the federal exchange.”

Blatt said those Oklahomans “will be perplexed why their attorney general is going to court to prevent them from having affordable health care.”

Don Marshall, one of 55,000 Oklahoma federal exchange policyholders, said the prospect of losing the subsidy “saddens me.” Marshall said he has been “very happy, very pleased with the coverage I’ve had.”

Small said Oklahomans whose coverage is threatened by lawsuits such as Pruitt’s should blame Democrats and Obama. He, like Bridenstine, says Democrats intentionally excluded federal exchanges from the subsidies.

“It was no mistake,” Small said. “It was no accident the law was written this way. They were trying to come up with a carrot and a stick to get the states to have their own exchanges.”


Carly Putnam joined OK Policy in 2013. As Policy Director, she supervises policy research and strategy. She previously worked as an OK Policy intern, and she was OK Policy's health care policy analyst through July 2020. She graduated from the University of Tulsa in 2013. As a student, she was a participant in the National Education for Women (N.E.W.) Leadership Institute and interned with Planned Parenthood. Carly is a graduate of the Oklahoma Center for Nonprofits Nonprofit Management Certification; the Oklahoma Developmental Disabilities Council’s Partners in Policymaking; The Mine, a social entrepreneurship fellowship in Tulsa; and Leadership Tulsa Class 62. She currently serves on the boards of Restore Hope Ministries and The Arc of Oklahoma. In her free time, she enjoys reading, cooking, and doing battle with her hundred year-old house.

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