House of Reps v. Burwell: A Case Worth Following

By Matthew Ryan, Harvard Health Law Society

With the final judgment in King v. Burwell this summer upholding federal subsidies for health insurance, many legal analysts believed that lawsuits against the Affordable Care Act had ended. But the House of Representatives had other plans. In July of 2014, the House of Representatives voted on partisan lines to sue President Obama for overstepping his constitutional bounds. The House alleged that the President did not faithfully execute the Affordable Care Act with regard to two executive actions. First, the Obama Administration authorized payments to insurance companies to assist with cost sharing. The House argued Congress never appropriated these funds. Second, the House alleged that the Obama Administration unlawfully delayed the employer mandate at a $12 billion cost to taxpayers.

In September, the United States District Court for the District of Columbia cleared a major hurdle for the House: the court granted standing to the plaintiffs for their challenge to the Administration authorizing cost sharing funds without Congressional appropriation. The court did not grant standing with regards to the employer mandate implementation.

In her opinion, Judge Rosemary Collyer offered critical background information to understand the potential significance of this legislation. First, Judge Collyer focused on the role of cost sharing within the ACA. This summer, the American people were exposed to the cost sharing provisions in Section 1401, which allowed Americans within certain income brackets to receive a tax credit to help them pay for insurance. King v. Burwell dealt with this provision. In addition to assisting health insurance consumers, the ACA required insurance companies to reduce out-of-pocket costs for consumers. The law then allowed for Treasury funds to reimburse the companies.

The House alleged that the provision reimbursing insurance companies required annual appropriations from Congress. And, given Congress’ intransigence on the ACA since 2010, Congress never authorized those appropriations. Judge Collyer documented with appropriate detail the intra-Congressional debates and continuing resolutions that never appropriated the respective funds.

In her opinion on standing, Judge Collyer took great weight that the entire House brought the lawsuit, as opposed to a few members of the House. In addition, the District Court found that the House suffered a particularized harm with the cost sharing measures because the executive action had trespassed against the House’s Article I constitutional powers as opposed to merely statutory grounds. Because of this, Judge Collyer granted standing.

This case is interesting for two reasons. First, the particulars of the case are relevant to the continued implementation of the Affordable Care Act. Even after the historic passage of the ACA, implementation of the law has met significant opposition within Congress. This opposition has likely had, and will likely continue to have, a damaging affect on the law’s success. In other words, passage of the law was only the first step.

Second, the case is interesting for the larger issue of separation of powers. Both political branches have used their many weapons against one another. President Obama has fiercely defended the ACA with his threat to veto any actions that change the law, while Congress—and the House in particular—have done their best to oppose the legislation (the House has voted at least 54 times to undo, repeal, or weaken the ACA). Now, the courts have allowed another tool for the House to wage against the President: lawsuits. This could open a floodgate of litigation on issues that were traditionally viewed as battles between the political branches.

Notably, Judge Collyer’s decision did not reach the merits of the case, and the Obama Administration will likely appeal the decision. Nonetheless, this case is one to keep on your radars for both the specific issues of the ACA implementation and the larger separations of powers implications.

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