The IRS Tax Credit Revisited -A Quick Rundown of the Circuit Court Split and What to Know Moving Forward

By Hillary Cook, DePaul University College of Law

In July 2014, two United States Circuit Court of Appeals ruled on the issue of whether the tax credit promulgated by the Internal Revenue Service (“IRS”) within the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act (“ACA”) is applicable to health insurance purchased by individuals on federally-facilitated health insurance exchanges established in the absence of state run health insurance exchanges. The United States Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia held health insurance purchased on a federally-facilitated exchange established in the absence of a state run exchange is ineligible for the IRS tax credits pursuant to ACA. Hours after the decision from the D.C. Circuit Court of Appeals, the Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals ruled in the reverse, affirming the lower court’s decision to uphold the IRS rule authorizing tax credits to individuals who enroll in health insurance programs on both state-run and federally-facilitated health benefit exchanges valid.

The petitioners from the Fourth Circuit decision filed a petition for a writ of certiorari in the United States Supreme Court urging the Court to immediately hear the issue because of the Circuit Court split. On September 4, 2014 the D.C. Circuit Court granted a petition for the case to be heard en banc with oral arguments beginning December 17, 2014 and vacated the July 2014 decision invalidating the tax credit.

In addition to the circuit court decisions regarding the IRS tax credit two Federal district courts have ruled on the issue. In Oklahoma ex. rel. Pruitt v. Burwell, the State of Oklahoma alleged that the IRS tax credit is contrary to the express statutory language of PPACA. The Court held the IRS tax credit rule invalid upholding a strict interpretation of ACA as it was written. In Indiana v. IRS, the Court dismissed and granted certain motions in the case on August 12, 2014, and scheduled oral arguments October 9, 2014 as to the merits of the case.

The issue at hand arises from the IRS rule promulgated to extend the PPACA tax subsidy to enrollees in both state run and federally-facilitated health benefit exchanges. To increase the number of Americans covered by health insurance PPACA regulated for the creation of health benefit exchanges. The purpose of health benefit exchanges was to organize a marketplace for individuals to shop for affordable coverage. PPACA legislates in the absence of a state establishing a Health Benefit Exchange by January 1, 2014, the Secretary of Health and Human Services shall establish and operate a federally-facilitated health benefit exchange in the state; however, Section 1311 only allows for an available tax credit to enrollees in an exchange established by one of the fifty states or the District of Columbia. In contrast, the IRS permitted individuals who purchase insurance on state-run or federally-facilitated exchanges to be eligible for tax credits for enrolling in, “one or more qualified health plans through an Exchange,” regardless of how the exchange is operated. With a split on how to apply the tax credits, it is not far fetched for the Supreme Court to intervene.

A United States Supreme Court ruling could have a mild or a detrimental effect on enrollees in federally-facilitated exchanges receiving a tax subsidy because those individuals will be ineligible for the tax subsidy. Without the tax credit permitted by the IRS, individuals will lose the federal subsidy, and will most likely forfeit enrollment in a health insurance exchange at the risk of not being able to afford health insurance.

The King Court reasoned the tax credit promulgated by the IRS was a reasonable interpretation of ACA, and further advanced one of the main purposes of ACA in providing more affordable healthcare to Americans. The Court concluded even though the IRS regulation deviated from a literal interpretation of PPACA the tax credit was providing an economic framework to provide tax credits to insurance purchased on a federally-facilitated exchange in the absence of a state-run exchange. Lastly, the Court concluded the IRS regulation must stand to prevent Congress from enforcing a tax penalty on Americans it never envisioned imposing.

Distinguishably, the IRS tax credit can be invalidated because the language of Section 1311 in ACA does not expressly allow for the IRS tax credit to apply to insurance purchased on federally-facilitated exchanges. The D.C. Circuit Court and the District Court in Oklahoma both articulated their reluctance to attempt to rewrite legislation to expand rule-making authority to agencies where the statute has remained silent.   Both Courts concluded PPACA is not to mean anything other than what the statute expresses and upheld a strict interpretation of ACA regarding agency rule-making.

Moving forward, the decision for the Supreme Court to reconsider taking the case will be a waiting game; the Supreme Court initially denied review of the case on November 3, 2014. Specifically, the en banc hearing in the D.C. Circuit Court will determine if the IRS tax issue has been resolved at the Circuit Court level. The increased need for a high court ruling has become more pressing with the Circuit Court split, the vacated D.C. Circuit Court decision, the District Court decisions, and the awaited en banc hearing in the D.C. Circuit Court.*

*Wolters Kluwer Editorial Note: at the time of publishing, the Supreme Court had granted cert in King v Burwell and the D.C. Circuit has held the Halbig case in abeyance pending the Supreme Court’s ruling in King.

Hillary Cook is a second year law student at DePaul University College of Law. She graduated magna cum laude from the University of Dayton in 2013. She is a member of DePaul’s Health Law Institute.