Since the inception of the Affordable Care Act, no year has started without news about this complex law — for better or worse. At the beginning of 2011, a federal judge ruled the ACA as unconstitutional. The Supreme Court heard the casein early 2012, ultimately overturning it. Throughout the first few months of 2013, the government announced changes to the health exchanges. And the trend of ACA news ringing in the New Year continued.
So it’s no surprise that late last year and at the start of 2019, the seemingly stable ACA returned to the spotlight. Recent news about another judicial ruling declaring the law unconstitutional, House votes on health care reform, and the recent government shutdown have marred the ACA with uncertainty and disoriented many employers. HR professionals are unsure about where the law currently stands, how the law could change over the next few years and what it all means for their compliance requirements.
However, underneath the upheaval, the ACA and all its requirements remain. And for HR professionals to help ensure their employers aren’t hit with fines, they need to understand the current state of the law and its potential future.
A ruling with no immediate impact
One of the more recent judicial actions happened in December 2018, when Texas Federal Judge Reed O’Connor heard a lawsuit against the ACA, which argued that because the individual mandate was zeroed out, the law was unconstitutional.
As you might recall, the Supreme Court declared the ACA constitutional in 2012 because the individual mandate was Congress exercising its power to levy taxes. With the nullified penalty, O’Connor found this Supreme Court decision invalidated and, therefore, the entirety of the ACA unconstitutional.
However, numerous states quickly moved to file an appeal in the Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals and, at the end of January 2019, four more states joined the coalition to defend the ACA. Concurrently, the Democrat-lead House voted to support the appeals process and intervene legally in the ACA lawsuit, which the Trump administration supported.
What did all this activity mean for the ACA? For now, not much.
Following his decision, O’Connor stayed his ruling for the duration of the appeals process, and throughout the proceedings the ACA will remain the law of the land. But this isn’t the end: There are two possible paths for O’Connor’s ruling.
How the appeals process moves forward
Due to its schedule, the Fifth Circuit won’t hear the appeal until this summer at the earliest. The court will then decide whether to uphold or overturn O’Connor’s ruling. As O’Connor ignored legal best practices when he struck down the entirety of the ACA as unconstitutional, instead of only the individual mandate, I and other legal experts predict the latter will happen and that the plaintiffs will then attempt to bring the lawsuit before the Supreme Court. However, the Supreme Court will likely not hear the case and allow the Fifth Circuit’s decision to overturn O’Connor’s ruling to stand.
If the Fifth Circuit goes against expectations and upholds O’Connor’s ruling, the defendants will undoubtedly take the case to the Supreme Court. While the Supreme Court will want to hear the case, the soonest it will be able to do so is the summer of 2020, and it will take even longer for the judges to make their decision. Until that point, the ACA will remain in effect. The Supreme Court could surprise the legal community and find the ACA unconstitutional, but it’s much more likely to follow its past precedent and rule in favor of the ACA.
Before the Fifth Circuit or the Supreme Court even hear the case though, Congress could make the entire case moot by changing certain aspects of the law. For instance, as the lawsuit is based on the zeroed-out individual mandate penalty, revising or revoking that part of the law will render the case obsolete.
Regardless of what path the lawsuit takes, the ACA will remain stable for at least two more reporting seasons. Additionally, rumblings of bipartisan actions to shore up the individual marketplaces suggest increased longevity and dependability.
The litany of news surrounding the ACA ever since its inception underscores just how much the law has endured over the years. However, even with the unexpected government shutdown, the IRS made no changes to employers’ ACA reporting timeline. The 1095 form fulfillment deadline remains March 4 and the e-filing deadline is still April 1.
Despite all these proceedings causing confusion around the ACA, the law and its requirements stand. When HR professionals look for what is required for the 2018 reporting season and beyond, it’s clear: The ACA is here to stay.