Rule of Law

The Law’s Intent Is Clear

If a high school student turned in an essay interpreting the great novel “Moby Dick” to be a story of a happy whale-watching cruise by plucking out the five words “the whaling voyage was welcome” – totally ignoring the plot of the book and the context of those five words – he would almost certainly get a failing grade from his English teacher. To be sure, those five words appear in the book, and, if read in isolation, suggest a pleasant outing. But taking a handful of words out of context is not how you read a novel.


It is also not the way to interpret laws. As Justice Antonin Scalia has explained, “the words of a statute must be read in their context, and with a view to their place in the overall statutory scheme.” Nonetheless, in King v. Burwell, opponents of the Affordable Care Act are asking the Supreme Court to deny tax credits to millions of Americans by fixating on just five words in the 900-page statute. 


The King petitioners claim that a provision of the law that refers to tax credits available when individuals purchase health insurance policies on an “Exchange established by the State” excludes tax credits for nearly 10 million Americans who buy policies on health care marketplaces run by the federal government. When the court hears argument in the case this week, it should reject this blinkered reading of the act.


If you read the rest of the statute, it is clear that tax credits were intended to be available for all Americans who need financial assistance to afford health insurance, regardless of who runs the health insurance marketplace where they live. The law provides that if a state chooses not to set up its own health care exchange, then the federal government will step in to establish “such an Exchange.” The text of the statute read in its entirety makes clear that regardless of whether an “Exchange” is “established by the State” or the federal government establishes “such an Exchange” because the state has declined to do so, they are functionally the same for the purposes of the law. And that means that tax credits are available on an equal basis for Americans in every state.


This makes perfect sense when you think about what the Affordable Care Act is all about. It is, after all, a statute expressly designed to provide “Affordable Coverage Choices for All Americans.” But a ruling for the challengers would strip affordable coverage from millions of Americans in the 34 states that opted for the federal government to run their exchange. That result hardly squares with the basic plotline of the law.


Indeed, the members of Congress who authored the law have gone on record rejecting the King challengers’ mischaracterization of the words they wrote. And no one reading the act at the time it was enacted understood the law to work the way the challengers claim.


The text of the Affordable Care Act is clear that tax credits are available for eligible Americans nationwide, as part of the law’s overarching goal to provide quality, affordable health care for all. The King challengers’ contrary interpretation of the Affordable Care Act fails basic rules of reading comprehension, not to mention long-established rules on how to interpret statutes. Their claims shouldn’t get a pass from the Supreme Court.