U.S. Supreme Court

Plaintiffs challenging health law may not have standing; one is unsure how she was chosen for case

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Do four Virginia plaintiffs challenging a key component of the Affordable Care Act have standing to sue?

Recent news reports have raised questions about the plaintiffs’ ability to sue, but the U.S. government never challenged standing for the reasons cited in the media reports, report the New York Times and the Washington Post. The U.S. Supreme Court will hear arguments in the case, King v. Burwell, on March 4, but it’s not clear if the court will address the question, according to the New York Times.

“The court is sometimes accused of being opportunistic in using the standing doctrine to avoid legal questions it wants to duck,” the Times says, “but ignoring the issue when it is eager to weigh in.”

The plaintiffs claim the Internal Revenue Service wrongly interpreted the health-care law to allow tax credits for those who buy insurance through state as well as federal insurance exchanges, meaning low-income residents of all 50 states are eligible. The plaintiffs claim the credits are available only to those in states that created their own exchanges, and Virginia is not among them.

But recent reports by the Wall Street Journal (sub. req.) and Mother Jones have raised questions about the plaintiffs’ standing to sue. The plaintiffs claim tax subsidies harm them because the money makes them ineligible for a hardship exemption to the law’s mandate for them to buy insurance or pay a penalty.

According to the news reports, two of the plaintiffs are veterans who may be eligible for other health-care coverage, which means they would not be subject to the penalty. Another plaintiff could be automatically enrolled in Medicare by the time of the Supreme Court decision. There are questions about the address of a fourth, who no longer appears to reside at the extended-stay motel she listed as her address, as well as a suggestion that she would still be eligible for the hardship exemption.

One plaintiff, Brenda Levy, told Mother Jones she doesn’t recall how she was selected as a plaintiff, but she looked forward to attending oral arguments. “It’s an adventure. Like going to Paris!” she said.

Levy doesn’t like the Affordable Care Act, but she “looked befuddled” when a Mother Jones reporter told her the outcome she advocated as a plaintiff could eliminate health-care coverage for millions of people, according to the story. She had expected the insurance problems could be fixed.

“I don’t want things to be more difficult for people,” Levy said. “I don’t like the idea of throwing people off their health insurance.”

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