More legal trouble for Affordable Care Act

WASHINGTON (MCT) — If computer glitches are not enough of a problem, President Barack Obama’s healthcare law also has a legal glitch that critics say could cause it to unravel in more than half the nation.

The Affordable Care Act proposes to make health insurance affordable to millions of low-income Americans by offering them tax credits to help cover the cost. To receive the credit, the law twice says they must buy insurance “through an exchange established by the state.”

But 36 states have decided against opening exchanges for now. Although the law permits the federal government to open exchanges instead, it does not say tax credits may be given to those who buy insurance through a federally run exchange.

Apparently no one noticed this when the long and complicated bill worked its way through the House and Senate. Last year, however, the Internal Revenue Service tried to remedy it by putting out a regulation that redefined “exchange” to include a “federally facilitated exchange.” This is “consistent with the language, purpose and structure … of the act as a whole,” the Treasury Department said.

But critics of the law have seized on the glitch. They have filed four lawsuits that urge judges to rule the Obama administration must abide by the strict wording of the law, even if doing so dismantles it in nearly two-thirds of the states. And the Obama administration has no hope of repairing the glitch by legislation as long as the Republicans control the House.

This week, U.S. District Judge Paul Friedman in Washington, a President Clinton appointee, refused the administration’s request to dismiss the suit. Instead, he said the challengers had put forward a substantial claim, and he promised to issue a written ruling.

“This is a problem,” said Timothy Jost, a law professor at Washington and Lee University. “This case could have legs,” although “it was never the intent of Congress to establish federal exchanges that can’t do anything. They were supposed to have exactly the same powers.”

Michael Carvin, the Washington lawyer leading the challenge, says the wording of the law is what counts. “This is a question of whether you believe in the rule of law. And the language here is as clear as it could possibly be,” he said.

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