Law professor takes on Obamacare

JP. O’Hagan, Sports Editor

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Case Western Reserve University School of Law professor Jonathan H. Adler has risen to a prominent role in the Supreme Court case King v. Burwell, which aims to clarify the Affordable Care Act, commonly known as Obamacare.

The ACA is a complex law that few outside the nation’s top legal minds fully understand. However the law can be condensed down into the metaphor of a three-legged stool. The first one focuses on government price control and the second is a requirement to purchase health insurance (see the sidebar for more information).

The King v. Burwell case focuses on the third tenant of the law, which grants tax subsidies to individuals who fall below or near the federal poverty line. This policy is in place to combat the rise in premiums the law may cause.

However there is a provision in the ACA which states that these subsidies are only available to those “who were enrolled in an Exchange established by the State under section 1311….”

A mere 13 words could cause huge implications on the entire 389,365-word law. King v. Burwell is considered by many to be one of the most important cases the nation’s highest court will hear this term, and Adler’s research is at the forefront.

In 2011, Adler noticed the statute about the requirement for exchanges to be established for the state to buy health insurance for people to receive tax subsidies.

He found it interesting, but he like many others thought it wouldn’t become an issue.

“It wasn’t assumed to be of much significance,” said Adler, “ It was assumed that all the states would establish exchanges.”

Within a few months it became apparent that most states would be dragging their feet or flat out refusing to set up exchanges. At this point 33 states have no exchange, which makes residents of these states covered by the national Healthcare.gov exchange. The IRS remedied this issue by extending the subsidies to those who purchased insurance from the federal exchange. However the law does not explicitly allow for such an action from the IRS, leading to the basis of the case.

According to Adler this was discrepancy was highly underestimated by health care law. This was likely due to overestimating the effect of other provisions in the law.

“Hindsight is 20/20, but now it is up to the court to make clear what the law says and force the political process to respond,” Adler said.

This is where the case is of importance to the future of the law, as with a new Congress the future is murky.

The law isn’t dead but the case is of importance on how laws are made. The law wasn’t perfect when it was passed, and now there are repercussions.

In the meantime Adler teaches, debates others on the issue and continues research.

“I had no idea this would turn into such a large issue,” said Adler, “as an academic, when you point out something like this you are lucky to just have printed in a journal or mentioned in the Congressional records. Instead I get to see my legal theory argued in front of the Supreme Court.”

The court will listen to oral arguments on Dec. 17 and the nation will wait for the judgment from the highest court in the land.