Do the Plaintiffs in King v. Burwell Have Standing Issues?

Much has been argued, discussed, analyzed, and predicted in regard to the potential outcomes in the upcoming Supreme Court matter King v. Burwell (4th Cir., July 22, 2014). Yet, as the date of the Court’s hearing approaches, new information has emerged that is relevant to the very foundation of matter, in a procedural sense. In particular, certain facts have come to light that could undermine the standing of the multiple individual plaintiffs in King. Determining whether the plaintiffs have proper standing in King is no small matter as the potential implications of a plaintiff-friendly decision in King could have disastrous consequences in terms of the future of the implementation of the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act (ACA) (P.L. 111-148).

King in a nutshell

The plaintiffs in King—David King, Douglas Hurst, Brenda Levy, Rose Luck—are challenging the IRS’ interpretation of sections 1321 and 1311 of the ACA. In particular, the plaintiffs claimed that IRS, through the implementation of the Internal Revenue Code Section 36B, inappropriately applied premium tax credit subsidies, which were available to state-run Health Insurance Exchanges under section 1311 of the ACA, to federally-facilitated Exchanges, which are allowed to be administered by the federal government pursuant to section 1321 of the Act. In other words, King, Hurst, Levy, and Luck claim that IRC Section 36B oversteps the authority granted in the ACA, which only allows for subsidies for those enrolled through state Exchanges, and allows individuals who enrolled through the federal Marketplace to be eligible for those subsidies as well. The Fourth Circuit rejected that argument and deferred to the IRS’ interpretation of the ACA through section 36B.

What is especially interesting about the King matter is that the High Court decided to hear this matter at all and why it did so. On the same day the King matter was decided by the Fourth Circuit, the D.C. Circuit Court of Appeals decided, via a three-judge panel, virtually the same issue and came out with the opposite opinion—that is, that the ACA did not explicitly provide that subsidies would be available to those enrolling in federally-facilitated Marketplaces and that the IRS interpretation as such was improper (Halbig v. Burwell, D.C. Cir. July 22, 2014). Despite the fact that the D.C. Circuit was set to re-hear Halbig en banc, the Supreme Court stepped in and decided to treat King and Halbig as a circuit split, causing the D.C. Circuit to hold the Halbig hearing in abeyance as it awaited the ruling by SCOTUS.

What is even more pressing, when considering how we got to this point with regard to this issue, is the potential fallout of a reversal of the Fourth Circuit opinion. Many experts have opined on what would become of the individual mandate and the availability of coverage (and of subsidized coverage) through the Exchanges if some states continued to opt out of creating Exchanges and if the High Court said that subsidies would not be available for those enrolled in the federal Marketplace. In particular, some experts are bracing for the worst in this scenario and predicting that if such circumstances were to come to fruition, the entire structure of the ACA could be threatened.

Standing issues in King?

The week of February 9, 2015, less than a month away from the scheduled arguments before the Court, brought about a new King controversy. This time the upheaval was focused on the four individual plaintiffs themselves and potential issues in standing in the matter. Specifically, sources reported that one of the plaintiffs, Luck, used a Virginia (a state that has opted to forgo creating a state-based Exchange and rely on the federally-facilitated Marketplace) motel address to describe her residency and to receive subsidy payments. It was reported that Luck no longer resides at the motel, which has a 28-day stay maximum. Additionally, according to the same reports, the standing of plaintiff King was also questioned as facts emerged that suggest he likely qualifies for other sources of benefits outside the Exchange coverage, namely veterans’ benefits. In that same light, Hurst, another Plaintiff, is also reported to be a veteran and may be qualified for such coverage. Finally, it was also alleged that plaintiff Levy’s income may have been previously misstated and that her true income would be too low to make her subject to the individual mandate under the ACA.

In order for the Supreme Court to find a lack of standing in the matter, all of these allegations against each of the four plaintiffs would have to be true, as each of the plaintiffs would have to lack standing for a basis of dismissal to exist. While the validity of these allegations have yet to be fleshed out, in the scenario that they can all be confirmed, King, which has the potential to dismantle a large source of subsidies (all of those directed to those enrolled in federally-facilitated Exchanges in 37 states) and potentially the underpinnings of the entire health reform initiative, could be dismissed on a procedural issue.