WASHINGTON (BP)–A federal judge’s decision Monday to strike down a new federal requirement that Americans purchase health insurance did not invalidate the entire health-reform law enacted earlier this year but raised questions about how much harm it would inflict upon the controversial measure.
Henry Hudson, a judge in the Eastern District of Virginia, ruled that the individual mandate, as the requirement to buy insurance is popularly known, is an unconstitutional overreach by Congress under its commerce clause authority. His decision to sever that provision from the remainder of the law means the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act’s other controversial aspects, including subsidies for insurance plans that cover abortion, will remain in effect and continue toward implementation. The law does not become fully effective until 2014.
Despite Hudson’s refusal to overrule the entire law, some critics said his invalidation of the individual mandate could deal a crippling blow to the overall measure.
“[T]he end result might still be similar,” said Todd Gaziano and Robert Alt, specialists in the Heritage Foundation’s Center for Legal and Judicial Studies, in a commentary for National Review Online. “That’s because many other parts of the act really can’t survive without the coerced payments and mandated coverage of the individual mandate: The economic scheme in the rest of the act — and the prohibition against denying coverage for preexisting conditions — would cause a death spiral of the medical-insurance industry. In short, Congress would have to open up the entire act again or the health-insurance industry would fail.”
Clint Bolick, litigation director at the Goldwater Institute in Arizona, told The Washington Post the opinion “blows a hole” in the overall law. “The individual mandate is a crucial part of the overall house of cards upon which Obamacare is built,” he said.
White House Press Secretary Robert Gibbs acknowledged the problems with the individual mandate’s removal, saying it is “the basis and the foundation for examining and doing away with insurance company discrimination on behalf of preexisting conditions. Obviously, without an individual responsibility portion in the law, you could not find yourself dealing with preexisting conditions because the only people that would likely get involved in purchasing health care would be the very sick. And obviously, that would be enormously expensive.”
Proponents and opponents of the law acknowledged its fate likely will be determined by the U.S. Supreme Court. Another federal court in Virginia, plus one in Michigan, has already issued a favorable ruling on the law. Twenty states are involved in a challenge to the law in which oral arguments will be heard in a Florida court Dec. 16.
The health-reform law was enacted in March despite opposition from about half of the public, including conservatives and pro-life advocates.
The House of Representatives approved the measure only after a bloc of pro-life Democrats agreed to support it in exchange for an executive order from President Obama regarding abortion. The country’s major pro-life organizations heavily criticized their decision, saying the order would have no effect in the face of the law, which they said authorized federal subsidies for plans that cover abortion. Nearly all of those Democrats either lost their re-election races or retired in the face of opposition from pro-lifers.
The Southern Baptist Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission (ERLC) opposed the legislation because of the abortion issue and other concerns. After Obama signed the law and the executive order, ERLC President Richard Land and more than 50 other pro-life leaders wrote the House to say they would work to restore the pro-life policies undermined by the law and the order. Foes of the law also have called for its repeal by Congress.
In his 42-page opinion, Hudson, who was nominated to the bench by President George W. Bush, said the individual mandate exceeded the constitutional powers granted to Congress. He also said an individual’s refusal to buy insurance is not an activity that triggers commerce clause authority.
“Neither the Supreme Court nor any federal circuit court of appeals has extended Commerce Clause powers to compel an individual to involuntarily enter the stream of commerce by purchasing a commodity in the private market,” he wrote.
Hudson also rejected the Obama administration’s argument that the individual mandate is a tax, not a penalty, imposed by the government. He said he is “unpersuaded” the provision “is a bona fide revenue raising measure enacted under the taxing power of Congress.”
Virginia Attorney General Ken Cuccinelli, who brought the suit on behalf of his state, praised Hudson’s decision, even though he had asked the court to strike down the entire law. “This is a great day for the Constitution,” he said.
“If we cross this constitutional line with health care now … [the] government’s power to intrude on our lives for our own good will be virtually unlimited,” Cuccinelli said.
In a commentary in The Washington Post, U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder and Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius said they “are confident that the law will ultimately be upheld.”
“Striking down the individual responsibility provision means slamming the door on millions of Americans … who’ve been locked out of our health insurance markets, and shifting more costs onto families who’ve acted responsibly,” they wrote.
Compiled by Tom Strode, Washington bureau chief of Baptist Press.