WASHINGTON -- The Supreme Court will delve into how much power members of Congress wield when they insert riders on appropriations bills, in a trio of cases that deals with $12 billion in payments to insurers related to the 2010 health care law's exchanges.
The justices agreed Monday to decide whether lawmakers can essentially repeal a previous law that obligates government payments by later adding riders to a spending bill to prevent those payments.
Three health insurance companies want the Supreme Court to overturn a lower court ruling they say will create a blueprint for how individual members of Congress and their staff can avoid a broader debate about repealing a law and instead accomplish their goal through the appropriations process.
Congress "should not be allowed to have its cake and eat it too by making statutory promises disappear via mere implications in the legislative history of appropriations bills," Oregon-based insurer Moda Health, told the court in a brief. "That is a recipe for disaster that no decision of this Court does or should countenance."
The case will return the Supreme Court to the long-contentious issue of the health care law in the next term, in what could be the height of the 2020 presidential campaign. It will not threaten the health care law itself.
The dispute focuses on a section of the law that required the government to reimburse health insurers for the "risk corridors" program for the first three years of the law. Insurance companies participated under the expectation they would be repaid.
But the Republican-led Congress later used a rider in fiscal appropriations bills for 2015, 2016 and 2017 to prevent the Department of Health and Human Services from fully making those reimbursements.
"The net effect was a bait-and-switch of staggering dimensions in which the government has paid insurers $12 billion less than what was promised," Moda Health wrote in a brief.
Risk corridor collections fell far short of the administration's obligations. In 2014, insurers were paid just 13% of what they were owed. The shortfall triggered a series of closures for nonprofit health plans created under the health care law and set off a fierce debate in Congress, with Republicans deriding the payments as "bailouts" to the insurance industry.
Lawsuits from dozens of other health plans are on hold until the Supreme Court decides the cases. Along with Moda Health, the high court challenges are brought by Illinois-based Land of Lincoln and Maine Community Health Options.