The Senate healthcare bill might be unconstitutional

Senate Republicans just won’t let their healthcare bill die. But if the political process doesn’t kill it, the U.S. Constitution might. That’s because the Senate bill now imposes insurance market death spirals on any state that fails to step in to create its own positive health policy. That very well may be unconstitutional under the Tenth Amendment’s prohibition on coercing the states.

On Friday, the Senate’s Better Care Reconciliation Act (“BCRA”) took a Byrd Bath. That’s the process by which the Senate parliamentarian reviews a reconciliation bill to make sure each provision is related to the federal budget. Provisions that aren’t sufficiently related to spending get eliminated from the bill and cannot be passed by a bare majority reconciliation vote.

Unfortunately for the GOP’s already-floundering healthcare effort, the parliamentarian just knocked out some major provisions of BCRA. She ruled that a provision defunding Planned Parenthood requires sixty votes to succeed. And she ruled that a provision prohibiting federal tax credits from paying for abortion services requires sixty votes as well.

These are deep political blows to Republicans, making “passage almost impossible,” according to Rep. Mark Meadows. But perhaps the most devastating decision by the parliamentarian struck down the GOP’s six-month lockout proposal. This policy was meant to be a conservative replacement for Obamacare’s individual mandate. It would make anyone who failed to maintain continuous insurance coverage wait six months before signing up for insurance. This is meant to stabilize insurance markets by nudging healthy people to sign up or face a six-month penalty.

Without the six-month lockup provision, BCRA suddenly has no mechanism to stabilize insurance markets. This leaves Senate Republicans courting insurance market disaster. The GOP would leave in place Obamacare’s politically popular guaranteed issue and community rating requirements. Guaranteed issue means that insurers cannot deny coverage to people with preexisting conditions. Community rating requires insurers to offer coverage to sick people at the same price they offer to healthy people.

For insurance markets to remain stable under these regulations, they must have a broad risk pool with a substantial number of healthy people enrolled in coverage. That’s why the individual mandate to purchase coverage is so crucial, pulling healthy people into the market. Without any type of penalty for forgoing insurance, anyone can buy insurance at any time. This means that more healthy people will decide not to purchase insurance until they need it. With the healthiest people opting out of the market, costs go up for everyone else, leaving a sicker risk pool left over. The next healthiest group then drops coverage, making costs rise and the risk pool sicker still.

This is what’s known as an insurance market death spiral — a process that culminates in a moribund insurance market with few if any insurers willing to sell. And that’s exactly what would happen under either GOP healthcare bill. For Senate Republicans to press ahead with BCRA in its current form would be to deliberately inflict insurance market death spirals.

At the same time, the GOP bill loosens the requirements for states to obtain waivers from federal regulations. As Nicholas Bagley explained at Vox, “Under the Affordable Care Act, a state has to show that its alternative plan would allow it to cover as many people, with coverage as generous, without increasing federal spending. [. . .] [But] [u]nder the Senate bill, to get a waiver, a state doesn’t have to demonstrate anything about coverage. Instead, it just has to show that the plan won’t ‘increase the federal deficit.’”

This makes it significantly easier for states to obtain waivers from national healthcare rules. Indeed, as long as a state’s proposed plan doesn’t increase federal spending, the federal government is required to grant that state’s waiver request under BCRA.

So post-Byrd Bath, the Senate bill pairs disastrous, death-spiral inducing federal insurance market rules with a much more permissive process for states to obtain waivers from those very rules. From one vantage point, it appears that the Republican Congress could even be threatening a booby-trapped insurance market if states don’t take action to seek waivers to implement their own regulatory policies. That is, the GOP healthcare bill is so bad, it could only reasonably be meant to provoke state-based reform.

That’s where the Senate bill gets into constitutional trouble. The Supreme Court has read the Tenth Amendment to prohibit Congress from enacting legislation that coerces the states. The states are sovereign entities, and Congress cannot try to compel desired action from them through overly strong-arm tactics. For instance, when Obamacare threatened to cut off all pre-existing Medicaid funding from any state that declined to expand its program to cover the near poor, the Supreme Court held that this threat amounted to undue coercion. As Chief Justice John Roberts put it in NFIB v. Sebelius, this threat amounted to Congress pointing a “gun to the head” of the states. No reasonable state would have had any meaningful choice.

One could read BCRA as posing a similar threat to the states: adopt state-based health reform, or have your insurance markets destroyed by malicious federal regulation. Indeed, this promotes the conservative preference for federalism and state-level policymaking. Under BCRA, if state lawmakers want healthy insurance markets, they will need to take affirmative legislative action to enact market-stabilizing policies and to seek federal waivers to take steps to save their insurance markets.

This looks awfully coercive. If states don’t act, BCRA’s perverse regulatory regime destroys their insurance markets. BCRA thus becomes a way to compel state action.

But don’t take my word for it. There’s some indication that the Supreme Court considers the threat of insurance death spirals to be constitutionally problematic. In King v. Burwell, opponents of Obamacare argued that Congress had conditioned subsidies for individual insurance enrollees on each state’s decision to run an insurance marketplace. If so, that meant that Congress had threatened states with insurance market death spirals if they didn’t run their own exchanges: without subsidies, the individual mandate would be inoperative while guaranteed issue and community rating remain in effect (the same dynamic as under BCRA). Such a federal regulatory environment would have plunged insurance markets into death spirals in states that refused to comply with the wishes of Congress.

A coalition of law professors and non-profit organizations presented this problem to the Supreme Court in an amicus brief (on which I advised). And at oral arguments, multiple justices worried about the coercive effects of Congress imposing death spirals on the states. Justice Anthony Kennedy called it “a serious constitutional problem.” “The states are being told: Either create your own exchange, or we’ll send your insurance market into a death spiral,” he said.

Justice Sonia Sotomayor was similarly troubled by the coercive implications of the plaintiffs’ reading of the ACA. “If we read it the way you’re saying,” she said, “then we’re going to read the statute as intruding on the federal-state relationship, because then the states are going to be coerced into establishing their own exchanges.” (In its opinion, the court ultimately steered clear of any constitutional issues by locating an anti-death spiral constraint in the statute itself.)

Granted, these are the oral argument musings of just two of the Court’s nine justices. But one could imagine a state opposed to Obamacare repeal seizing on these hints from King v. Burwell to attack BCRA in court, pressing the Supreme Court to deal with the “serious constitutional problem.” For BCRA presents a unique perversion of the federal-state relationship: federal legislation so awful that it coerces any reasonable state into action.

The Senate’s healthcare bill was bad when it was introduced, and it got made worse after undergoing its Byrd Bath. The GOP’s healthcare effort is no longer just politically dire. It has now ventured into potentially unconstitutional territory. The same is true of the Senate’s alternative “repeal only” bill, which too would eliminate the individual mandate without bothering to supply any replacement.

The Senate is due to vote to begin debate on Obamacare repeal in a matter of hours. After the parliamentarian’s decision, the Senate’s bill currently lacks any meaningful way to protect insurance markets. If Senate Republicans press on with the bill in its current form, they will be assenting to inflicting grave harm on health insurance markets across the country. And they may be casting a bad vote for a bill that’s on the wrong side of the Constitution.