State officials in Ohio filed a lawsuit on Monday, Jan. 26 alleging Obamacare tax assessments against government agencies are unconstitutional. Unsurprisingly, the case was covered closely by major media outlets across the nation.
But while the Ohio case may be getting all the headlines, it could be a case brought forward by an unknown Pennsylvania tax collector that ends up taking down key provisions of President Barack Obama’s signature law when the United States Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit considers the case in the spring.
Like countless other Americans, Jeffrey Cutler, currently the tax collector of East Lampeter Township, Pennsylvania, lost his health insurance in October 2013 when his insurance company notified him that his plan did not qualify for renewal due to provisions in the Affordable Care Act (ACA), also known as Obamacare. Cutler, who was covered by the same plan from 2007 to its cancellation in 2013, was pleased with his coverage and did not wish to obtain a different—and in his opinion an inferior—plan through the Obamacare exchange in Pennsylvania.
On Nov. 14, 2013, facing intense political pressure over thousands of cancelled policies, Obama announced a “transition policy” that promised to allow individuals like Cutler to keep, at least temporarily, health insurance plans that originally did not qualify for renewal under the ACA.
Cutler soon discovered, however, Obama’s promise was not a universal policy applying to all the states; only citizens in those states whose regulators chose to implement Obama’s transition policy would be able to keep their health insurance plans. In other words, the Obama administration gave individual states the power to decide for themselves whether or not existing federal law would be enforced in their own states.
Unfortunately for Cutler, Pennsylvania was not one of the states that mandated what became known as Obama’s “administrative fix.” Then-Pennsylvania Insurance Commissioner Michael Consedine did allow individuals to keep their insurance plans that would otherwise be cancelled by Obamacare mandates, but the decision was ultimately left to the insurance companies to decide whether or not insurance plans would be cancelled.
Cutler’s insurance company chose to cancel Cutler’s plan, and Cutler went without insurance in 2014, which means he now owes the federal government at least $95 for failing to have adequate health insurance coverage.
Critics of Obamacare, including House Speaker John Boehner (R-OH), immediately questioned the constitutionality of the Obamacare administrative fix; they alleged the Obama administration violated the Constitution when it single-handedly, without the approval of Congress, altered the ACA’s clear provisions about when plans considered to be inadequate would be cancelled.
Cutler’s suit, filed on December 31, 2013, took a different approach. Cutler claimed the law violates the Constitution because it does not apply the law equally, which past Supreme Courts have determined is a guarantee of the Fifth Amendment.
Cutler, who is now represented by constitutional lawyers David Yerushalmi and Robert Muise of the American Freedom Law Center, argues that because the so-called administrative fix allowed states to apply federal law unequally, the Obama administration violated the Constitution.
Further, Cutler asserts that because the religious exemptions provided in the law do not apply to all religions—Cutler is Jewish born—the ACA violates his First Amendment rights as well.
The government filed for a dismissal in the district court on the grounds that Cutler, who initially sued without legal representation, did not have standing and that he did not sufficiently allege a legal claim. The court granted the motion and Cutler’s case was dismissed.
In an interview, Cutler said now that his case is being handled by expert constitutional lawyers Yerushalmi and Muise, he is confident his appeal will be successful. A brief laying out Cutler’s case will be filed in February and the government’s response is due in March. Oral arguments have not yet been scheduled.
Cutler’s case raises important questions about how the government must apply its laws. Can the federal government arbitrarily choose which states, religious groups, or other classes of people must follow national law and which do not? The Obama administration certainly seems to think so.
“The United States is currently the greatest beacon of freedom in the world,” Cutler said. “If we fail to challenge unconstitutional executive actions and laws, we risk our own humanity. Every person in the United States that liked their old health plan better than their new plan but could not keep it is a harmed individual and deserves judicial relief.”
For Cutler’s sake and for the sake of the nation, let’s hope the Court of Appeals agrees.
Justin Haskins (Jhaskins@heartland.org) is an author, blogger, and the editor at The Heartland Institute, a leading free-market think tank based out of Chicago, IL.