King v. Burwell: Federal Health Insurance Subsidies Upheld for Patients

imagesBy Maureen Leddy, JD, Policy Coordinator, ACCC

On June 25, the Supreme Court issued their decision in the highly watched King v. Burwell case, ruling that the more than 6 million people currently purchasing insurance through a federal exchange can continue to access subsidies. At issue was the legality of federal subsidies for those in states that opted not to create a state health insurance exchange. Without these subsidies, the Court felt that the insurance markets would have essentially collapsed in the 34 states with federally run marketplaces, with the majority of those accessing subsidies unable to afford coverage when faced with full premium costs and, as a result, costs rising exponentially for those remaining in the market. Specifically, the court said: “[t]he combination of no tax credits and an ineffective coverage requirement could well push a State’s individual insurance market into a death spiral.”

A different decision in King would have likely created much disruption in the marketplace for both patients and providers. According to Kaiser Family Foundation, more than 6 million Americans might have lost subsidies, and faced an average premium increase of 287%. RAND estimated the number of insured Americans would have declined by 9.6 million. The healthy insured may have elected to discontinue coverage, leaving high-cost patients to constitute the majority of the insurance pool. Cancer patients might have been faced with paying unsubsidized and substantially increased premiums, which for some may have been unattainable.

Overturning subsidies would have also placed providers in the precarious position of caring for patients that became uninsured. The financial and ethical implications of treating newly uninsured patients are great. While providers may have chosen not to terminate patients undergoing a course of treatment regardless of a change in insurance status out of ethical obligation, the financial result would have been challenging, particularly for those community-based practices that lacked programs for low-income patients. For hospital-based providers, the financial implications would also have been great, undermining provisions in the Affordable Care Act that reduced Disproportionate Share Hospital (DSH) Medicare payments in exchange for a substantially reduced uninsured population. In short, without current federal subsidies in place, the mechanisms for providing and funding care for millions of Americans would have needed to be revisited. With a lack of agreement in Congress on the best approach to renewed healthcare reform, providers would have faced a great deal of uncertainty.

With a 6-3 decision, Justice Roberts’ Court concluded that “Congress passed the Affordable Care Act to improve health insurance markets, not destroy them. If at all possible, we must interpret the Act in a way that is consistent with the former, and avoids the latter.”

Post updated 6/26/2015

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