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King v. Burwell: Vogon Logic

 

February 28 2015

In order to accept the logic opposing ACA subsidies put forth in King v. Burwell, you would have to be a Vogon. Let me explain.

==The ACA==

The ACA, a.k.a. “Obamacare”, is a law that makes it possible for everyone to have health insurance at a reasonable price in the United States. While not as advanced as all other first world countries’ health care — all of whom except the United States use a form of health coverage called “single payer” — it is a great step forward from what we had before. It used to be, for people with chronic medical conditions, the only way to get medical care without becoming bankrupt was to have a job — or have a family member have a job — which provided medical insurance.

The ACA fixed this. By a combination of expanding medicaid to cover the poorest, subsidizing medical insurance for the working and middle class, and mandating that everyone who isn’t poor enough for medicaid buy insurance, it makes universal medical care finally a reality in the United States.

==Medicaid expansion==

For reasons I am unable to fully understand, there are a number of people who are opposed to there being universal health care in the United States. They tried to remove this health care with a lawsuit back in 2012. The Supreme Court compromised: They upheld most of the ACA, but made it optional for states to expand medicaid so that their poorest can have medical care.

Right now, of the 50 states, 28 have opted to expand medicaid, while 22 have not yet pass legislation to allow their poorest to have medical coverage.

==King v. Burwell==

Not satisfied with the 2012 compromise, a number of people opposed to Obamacare came up with another lawsuit to try and remove the subsidies in 37 states based on an unusual interpretation of four words in the ACA law.

Last year, the Supreme Court decided to hear this case.

Should the Supreme Court side with the plaintiffs and not allow 37 states to have insurance subsidies, the consequences would be terrible. As one opponent of the ACA admitted, there will be “Chemotherapy turned off for perhaps 12,000 people, dialysis going dark for 10,000. The horror stories will be real.”

==Meet the Vogons==

Douglas Adams’ classic book The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy starts off with our hero, Author Dent, waking up to find a bulldozer about to demolish his house. He has this conversation:

Mr Prosser said: “You were quite entitled to make any suggestions or protests at the appropriate time you know.”
“Appropriate time?” hooted Arthur. “Appropriate time? The first I knew about it was when a workman arrived at my home yesterday. [...]”
“But Mr Dent, the plans have been available in the local planning office for the last nine months.”
“Oh yes, well as soon as I heard I went straight round to see them, yesterday afternoon. You hadn't exactly gone out of your way to call attention to them had you? I mean like actually telling anybody or anything.”
“But the plans were on display ...”
“On display? I eventually had to go down to the cellar to find them.”
Soon after this, the Vogons arrive to destroy Earth:

“People of Earth, your attention please,” a voice said, and it was wonderful. Wonderful perfect quadraphonic sound with distortion levels so low as to make a brave man weep.
“This is Prostetnic Vogon Jeltz of the Galactic Hyperspace Planning Council,” the voice continued.
“As you will no doubt be aware, the plans for development of the outlying regions of the Galaxy require the building of a hyperspatial express route through your star system, and regrettably your planet is one of those scheduled for demolition. The process will take slightly less that two of your Earth minutes. Thank you.”
[...]

“There’s no point in acting all surprised about it. All the planning charts and demolition orders have been on display in your local planning department on Alpha Centauri for fifty of your Earth years, so you’ve had plenty of time to lodge any formal complaint and it’s far too late to start making a fuss about it now.”
[...]

The PA slammed back into life again. The voice was annoyed. It said: “What do you mean you’ve never been to Alpha Centauri? For heaven’s sake mankind, it’s only four light years away you know. I’m sorry, but if you can’t be bothered to take an interest in local affairs that’s your own lookout.
“Energize the demolition beams.”
At this point Earth was destroyed.

==Vogon logic in action==

In the brief from nine conservative states who oppose the ACA and supported the plaintiffs in King v. Burwell, we have this wording:

the States [...] could read the plain text of Section 36B and see that it conditioned the subsidies [...] there is no merit to the argument that the IRS Rule must be upheld in order to prevent unfair surprise to the States
Vogon logic.

The fact of the matter is this: No states actually knew that, by using the federal instead of a state exchange, that there was even the possibility they would lose the subsidies. They were given as much warning as Arthur Dent was given that his house was going to be demolished.

Indeed, in the brief from some 24 different states, both conservative and liberal, they show evidence that the states were given no such notice:

While the extensive records of that deliberative process show that the States relied on many factors and came to diverse conclusions when selecting an Exchange model, conspicuously absent is evidence that States contemplated the dramatic consequence of depriving their residents of tax credits or destroying their own insurance markets. To the contrary, States as diverse as Alaska, [46] Ohio, [47] and Delaware [48] weighed the benefits and burdens without ever suggesting that the ACA conditioned premium assistance on a State’s creating its own Exchange.
Observe that, unlike the other filing, there are footnotes showing evidence that the states had no such knowledge of there being a threat against states who did not establish exchanges.

==The Pennhurst doctrine==

That brief filed on behalf of 24 states talks about the Pennhurst doctrine, which “requires that Congress give States clear notice of conditions imposed under cooperative-federalism programs.” This doctrine, based on a 1981 Supreme Court decision, flat out forbids Vogon logic being applied when interpreting laws which the US federal government enacts with assistance from the states, such as the ACA.

==How partisan is the Supreme Court?==

The only way this case can win is if the conservative justices put on blinders and ignore legal precedent forbidding Vogon logic from being allowed. To do so requires them to be partisan hacks with no respect for long-standing principles of how law is interpreted.

Roberts, in a appearance on September 19, 2014 at the University of Nebraska College of Law, said that “I’m worried about people having that perception [the the court makes blatantly partisan decisions], because it’s not an accurate one.” He needs to put his money where his mouth is and rule against King v. Burwell.

Excerpts from The Hitchiker’s Guide to the Galaxy are Copyright © 1979 by Douglas Adams. Their use in this article is fair use, since only a very small percentage of Adams’ classic work is used, and its use does not harm (indeed it may even help) the market for the original work.

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