Why Michael Cannon is wrong about coercion in King v. Burwell

Michael Cannon of the Cato Institute has a thoroughly unconvincing rebuttal to those of us who have pointed out that his own legal gloss on the Affordable Care Act might be unconstitutionally coercive on the states. Cannon’s core error is that he repeatedly ignores the fundamental fact that health insurance markets aren’t like other markets because they are prone to adverse selection problems.

Remember, Cannon helped spearhead the legal challenge that became King v. Burwell, premised on the theory that Congress made subsidies available exclusively to states that created their own exchanges. I have argued (as have others) that such a tactic by Congress might be unconstitutionally coercive because it would threaten the states with insurance market death spirals if they refuse to comply. In a battle of statutory interpretations, the Court thus cannot sustain Cannon’s.

Cannon argues that this isn’t coercive at all under current Supreme Court precedent. His mistake, however, is brushing past the full scale of the consequences that follow if a state declines to create an exchange under King. Cannon argues that killing the individual mandate by cutting off subsidies would just impose additional costs on state residents. But this ignores the fact that on health insurance markets, these costs aren’t stagnant. Rather, these costs are dynamic and self-perpetuating until markets seize up altogether. Health care is different, and that difference makes the “choice” in King unusually coercive.

Cannon raises three separate points pushing back against the coercion argument:

Cannon #1: “The ACA’s Exchange provisions don’t penalize states. They let states make tradeoffs between taxes, jobs, and insurance coverage.”

Response: Whether Congress penalizes the states or their residents should be irrelevant under the Constitution’s federalism protections. And the tradeoff that states would have to make to decline to create an exchange under King is significantly more burdensome than Cannon admits.

“If a state fails to establish an Exchange, the ACA withholds subsidies from a state’s residents, not the state,” Cannon argues. This is overstated for two reasons. First, withholding subsidies under King not only has individual effects, but debilitating statewide effects, too. Because withholding subsidies triggers the individual mandate’s affordability exception for most consumers, state insurance markets (still obligated to comply with the ACA’s guaranteed-issue and community-rating requirements) will plunge into death spirals. That’s very much a penalty on a state as a whole, rather than just on its citizens.

Cannon goes to great lengths to contort the death spiral phenomenon into a mere imposition of costs.  Rather than call it a death spiral, he says that “withholding subsidies in uncooperative states would make the costs of the ACA’s community-rating price controls transparent to consumers, and those costs might have the effect of coercing states into implementing Exchanges.”

This is a deeply understated and incomplete formulation of what’s coercive about King. Cannon’s sleight of hand is treating the “costs” in an uncooperative state’s insurance market as if they were the costs typical of any other market. But this just isn’t the case. Health insurance markets are fundamentally different, and are singularly prone to adverse selection problems. The individual mandate is the lynchpin that secures stability in insurance markets with consumer-protecting regulations like guaranteed-issue and community rating. Removing this lynchpin doesn’t just unveil the ACA’s “true cost” (i.e., it’s cost without cross-subsidization from the young and healthy). Rather, it unleashes uncontrollable cost increases that culminate in a market collapse. That’s what would coerce the states, for the consequences of withholding subsidies impact far more than just the individuals that would have otherwise been eligible for them.

It’s also hardly clear that, for purposes of federalism constraints on congressional power, the distinction between states as sovereigns and their residents really matters. Certainly, New York v. United States suggests that it matters some. But New York itself reminds us that the underlying rationale of these federalism constraints is to protect individuals, not states. As the Court put it, “federalism secures to citizens the liberties that derive from the diffusion of sovereign power.” Drawing a bright-line and limiting coercion to direct federal salvos against state governments’ budgets would be an artificial formality that makes little sense given the whole raison d’etre of the federalism enterprise.

Such a formality would also be too easily circumvented for the Court to accept. In fact, at oral arguments in King, Justice Kennedy signaled that this very distinction matters less than Cannon thinks to the coercion inquiry. Kennedy said that the court “wouldn’t allow” Congress to impose a thirty-five mile per hour speed limit on states that don’t go along with a federal command (at 19:3). As in King, such a restriction wouldn’t impose a direct penalty on state budgets, but would instead negatively impact its residents directly. But such a negative impact would still be coercive, according to Justice Kennedy. That means that a regulation can still be coercive even if it doesn’t directly affect state budgets.

Moreover, if King contemplates the states making well-considered “tradeoffs” under the ACA, it’s hardly clear that they have been able to do so, which gets to Cannon’s second point:

Cannon #2: “Roughly half of states appear to consider those costs [of declining to create an exchange] tolerable.”

Response: These states haven’t reckoned with the full costs of declining to create an exchange under King. And just because a state chooses to accept the federal government’s punishment doesn’t make it constitutionally acceptable for Congress to pose a coercive choice in the first place.

This state acquiescence argument has appeared frequently since oral arguments. How could the exchange choice be coercive, its proponents ask, if so many states have refused to create exchanges?

The problem, as I’ve written, is that not a single state has yet embraced the full range of consequences of refusing to create an exchange under King. No state has publicly indicated that it has knowingly and voluntarily accepted an insurance death spiral as a consequence of this choice. States may be willing to take ownership of losing subsidies, and are happy to trumpet freedom from the individual mandate. Some even now claim, post hoc, that they knew they’d lose subsidies at the time they declined to create an exchange. But so far, not a single state has acknowledged the deeply destabilizing impact on their insurance markets that follows from that choice under King.

But suppose a state did claim to accept this dire consequence. Would it make a legal difference to the coercion inquiry if states (even many states) decided to take the federal government’s punishment? What if before NFIB, states had decided to end their Medicaid programs in order to avoid Obamacare’s expansion of that program? Would the threatened loss of all Medicaid funding still be coercive? In fact, Texas — one of the country’s biggest potential markets for expanded Medicaid — was making noise about abandoning Medicaid altogether to avoid the mandatory expansion even before NFIB. I doubt that the Court would permit Congress to impose an otherwise coercive choice on the states just because it wasn’t perfectly airtight coercion.

Both in theory and in practice, the number of states declining to create exchanges should have little bearing on the degree of coercion in King. If anything, the fact that so many states have made this choice in the face of the draconian implications of King’s version of the ACA points toward other doctrines that cast doubt on the petitioners’ interpretation. Maybe the thirty-six states that declined exchanges didn’t have clear notice of the consequences of such a choice, in which case the petitioners’ interpretation violates the Pennhurst doctrine. Or maybe the states simply didn’t see the elephantine implications of the petitioners’ version of the ACA because Congress hid it in a statutory mouse-hole — another legislative no-no that Justice Sotomayor raised in oral arguments (at 23:5). However you cut it, the Fantasy Affordable Care Act conjured by the King petitioners ultimately collapses in on itself.

Cannon #3: “This ‘deal’ is comparable to what the Court allowed in NFIB v. Sebelius.”

Response: The “deal” here in unlike NFIB in that it threatens grave economic harm on the states that extends beyond depriving the program’s would-be beneficiaries of insurance.

Cannon draws an analogy between the Medicaid expansion remedy in NFIB and how the ACA would operate under King: “In NFIB, the Court allowed states collectively to turn down Medicaid subsidies for as many as 16 million poor people. The Exchange provisions permit states to do the same for 16 million higher-income residents.”

Again, the coercion here is about far more than just subsidies. The yes-or-no Medicaid expansion decision didn’t threaten broader economic harm on state insurance markets. There, the consequences of state refusal were borne entirely by those eligible for expanded Medicaid.

The consequences of the choice in King aren’t nearly so cabined. Under the petitioners’ reasoning, the choice of whether or not to accept subsidies has huge economic consequences for the sustainability of state insurance markets as a whole. As I’ve explained above, foregoing these subsidies doesn’t just mean passing up on help for “16 million higher-income residents”—it also means an insurance market collapse. If a state wants a functioning health insurance market, it’s very hard to turn down subsidies. That wasn’t a consequence states had to consider three years ago under NFIB’s Medicaid expansion holding.

*          *          *

Cannon’s rejection of the coercion argument thus doesn’t hold water. The threat levied against the states under his reading of the ACA is significantly graver than he’s willing to admit — and it’s grave precisely because of the unique problems endemic to health insurance markets.

There’s a telling moment in Cannon’s article, however. As a result of a state’s decision not to create an exchange, Cannon argues, “residents would then see lower taxes, more jobs, more hours, higher incomes, and more flexible health benefits.”

The supposed economic gains are sheer speculation by Cannon, and they are highly doubtful speculation at that given how frantically business has sought to stave off the consequences of a ruling in favor of the petitioners in King. But Cannon tips his hand with the last “benefit”: “more flexible health benefits.”

Cannon presumably envisions Red states increasing reliance on a conservative favorite: health savings accounts — personal accounts where an individual funds much of his or her own medical costs rather than counting on insurance.

This is a useful reminder that the conservative vendetta against health reform is about more than just health exchanges, government subsidies, the individual mandate, or Barack Obama. At core, it’s about rejecting the basic risk-pooling function of insurance in favor of a go-it-alone, bootstraps approach. It’s part of what Jacob Hacker calls the “personal responsibility crusade,” taking us from a society that pitches in together to protect one another and transforming us into one where you’re on your own instead. That, at heart, is what’s at stake in King v. Burwell and the continued fight for universal health reform.

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