This week brought some important developments in ACA implementation. First and foremost is the major win by consumer advocates in the prolonged and multi-pronged struggle to shape NAIC recommendations on Medical Loss Ratios. At the NAIC meeting in Orlando today, consumer advocates beat back attempts by brokers to exclude commissions from the definition of medical expenses, blocked insurers from using high-loss ratios in one state to paper over a failure to meet standards in another, and created a reasonable standard of certainty to establish whether an insurer’s failure to meet the loss ratio was due to under-spending on medical care or unforeseeable random events.

These decisive wins are a case example of the one-two punch that advocates will need in order to influence the numerous federal and state decisions ahead. The consumer victory resulted from the combination of persistent policy advocacy, especially by the NAIC consumer representatives, coupled with a national effort by consumers to reach out to their insurance commissioners and let them know that people were watching (illustrating one of the important axioms of grassroots advocacy: decision makers make different — and better — decisions when they are being watched).

The second key development, while less positive, also contains within it an important strategic dimension. Last week, the Florida District Court issued a decision allowing the case against the individual responsibility clause of the ACA to go forward. Specifically, the Florida court will hear arguments about whether the individual responsibility requirement is legal under the Commerce Clause. The court also will hear arguments about whether the Medicaid expansion under the ACA exceeds Congress’ authority, although Judge Vinson’s decision makes it clear that he considers this argument to be much weaker than the individual responsibility claim. Because Judge Vinson rejected the federal government’s argument that the penalty for not having health insurance constitutes a tax, the focus of the Florida case is squarely on the Commerce Clause argument. Just a week earlier, a District Court in Michigan ruled that the individual responsibility requirement was Constitutional. Whether Florida (and Virginia) ultimately agree with the Michigan ruling, the issue is likely heading for the Supreme Court, which should be enough to give anyone concerned about the sustainability of the ACA a few sleepless nights (especially since the wife of one Justice is actively campaigning for repeal).

But while legal scholars slug it out and try to second guess the next round of rulings, it is important for advocates not to lose sight of the intertwining of the political and legal issues since most advocates will not be able to intervene directly in the legal proceeding.

First, the court cases keep public attention focused on the individual responsibility requirement, which is one of the least popular provisions of the law. The lawsuits also encourage doubt over whether the law will actually be implemented in its current form and potentially give cover for foot-dragging by state administrations inclined to oppose implementation.

The court actions not only affect the political debate, they are also affected by it. The political backdrop against which the Supreme Court makes its final decision is extremely important. To the extent that the law is considered unpopular and there is an active movement for roll back, it will create a context in which a negative legal outcome is considered more palatable.

The key takeaway for supporters of reform is that whether we are looking at how the court cases affect the political debate or how the political debate affects the courts, the response of advocates must be to keep working to create a context of support for the law and expectation that it should and will move forward.

Overall, the events of the past week underscore both the need for and the potential of sustained consumer engagement.

— Michael Miller, Policy Director