A US court has dealt a new blow to the healthcare reform law seen as US President Barack Obama’s proudest domestic achievement, declaring its centerpiece provision unconstitutional.
The Eleventh Circuit appeals court, based in Atlanta, ruled on Friday that the law’s individual mandate, which requires everyone to own health insurance in the US’ mostly private system or pay a penalty, exceeded the US Congress’ powers.
However, the court ruled that the remainder of the healthcare law, which extended coverage to an extra 32 million people and was a long-held dream of Democrats, was within the bounds of the US Constitution.
About 50 million Americans lack basic health insurance. As a result, hospitals and taxpayers are forced to pay about US$43 billion a year to cover the costs of those who are treated but cannot pay.
The ruling increased the likelihood that the US Supreme Court will be called upon to rule on the healthcare law’s constitutionality, possibly as soon as next year, in the heat of a presidential election campaign.
Republicans strongly oppose the law, which they have dubbed “Obamacare,” as an infringement on individual liberty, and have sworn to repeal it.
By a 2-1 margin, the Eleventh Circuit affirmed a ruling by a lower Florida court that the individual mandate was unconstitutional, in a case brought by 26 state governors and attorneys general, most of them Republican.
However, the judges overturned another part of the Florida court’s ruling that the entire healthcare law, passed last year, was unconstitutional.
“The individual mandate exceeds Congress’s enumerated commerce power and is unconstitutional,” Chief Judge Joel Dubina wrote. “This economic mandate represents a wholly novel and potentially unbounded assertion of congressional authority: the ability to compel Americans to purchase an expensive health insurance product they have elected not to buy, and to make them re-purchase that insurance product every month for their entire lives.”
The White House said it strongly disagreed with the decision and was confident that the law would ultimately be upheld as constitutional.
It also pointed out that four courts, including the Sixth Court of Appeals, had endorsed the law.
“Those who claim this provision exceeds Congress’ power to regulate interstate commerce are incorrect,” said Stephanie Cutter, a special assistant to Obama.
She said those who chose not to buy insurance in the US private medical system hurt everyone else, because taxpayers end up subsidizing their care when the uninsured are taken to emergency rooms.
The White House also justifies the individual mandate by saying that without it people would wait until they get sick to apply for coverage, which would cause insurance premiums to rise.
However, the ruling cheered Republicans, who see the healthcare law as an unacceptable intrusion by government into individual freedoms.