In its recent decision in U.S. House of Representatives v. Burwell,[1] the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia ruled that the Obama administration’s payment of cost-sharing subsidies for enrollees in plans offered through the Affordable Care Act’s Exchanges is unauthorized for lack of Congressional appropriation. The decision would affect future cost-sharing subsidies, though the court immediately stayed the decision pending its outcome on appeal.[2]

In its decision, the court found in favor of the members of the House of Representatives, based upon its interpretation of the applicable law. Specifically, the court found that, when Congress passed the Affordable Care Act, including Sections 1401 (premium subsidies) and 1402 (cost-sharing subsidies), it permanently appropriated funds for the former but not the latter.

The court examined prior Office of Management and Budget submissions to the House Appropriations Committee, finding that the administration had explicitly acknowledged the lack of appropriated funds for the cost-sharing reduction payments. After the Republican-controlled Congress declined the administration’s appropriations requests for the cost-sharing reduction funds, President Obama signed an appropriations bill without it. Treasury subsequently paid the cost-sharing subsidies to issuers without an appropriation. As of December 2015, 56.4% of Exchange plan enrollees were receiving the subsidies.[3]

The court rejected the administration’s arguments that, under King v. Burwell, the Act must be read for its intended effectWhile King identified “three key reforms”—guaranteed coverage and community rating, individual mandate and premium tax credits—the court found that King did not treat the section 1402 cost-sharing reduction provisions as integral to those reforms. Moreover, King found the Exchange statute nonfunctional due to drafting failure and thus in need of saving. By contrast, the district court found that, here, Congress’s simple failure to appropriate cannot be remedied by a court.

The case will almost certainly be appealed to the D.C. Circuit Court of Appeals.

Ultimately, if the ruling is affirmed, absent a Congressional fix, new legal problems would arise for the Affordable Care Act’s Exchanges. Regardless of an appropriation, the Act still requires issuers to reduce cost-sharing for eligible enrollees, which would likely shield consumers but leave issuers financially exposed.

Moreover, notwithstanding the apparent lack of appropriation, the Act requires the government to pay issuers for the cost-sharing subsidies. This raises questions concerning the government’s ability to recoup payments already made. Should the government elect to discontinue the payments going forward, issuers could seek legal redress.

Notably, an affirmation of the district court could impact Exchange premiums. Many issuers have already raised premium rates for 2017, citing a high proportion of costlier, sicker enrollees. Should the courts ultimately place the burden on issuers to subsidize cost sharing, these costs are also likely to be shifted to premiums.