The administration of US President Barack Obama said it would appeal a Florida judge’s ruling that last year’s healthcare overhaul overstepped limits on congressional power by compelling people to buy insurance.
US District Judge Roger Vinson in Pensacola said on Monday that a provision of the law requiring Americans over 18 to obtain insurance coverage exceeded the power of Congress to regulate commerce under the US Constitution. Because the insurance mandate is central to the legislation, the entire law must be voided, he said.
The US said it might seek to block the decision while it appeals.
Florida sued on behalf of 13 states on March 23, the day US President Barack Obama signed into law the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act, legislation intended to provide the US with almost universal healthcare coverage. The 955-page law also bars insurers from denying coverage to people who are sick and from imposing lifetime limits on costs. It includes pilot projects to test ideas like incentives for better results and bundled payments to medical teams for patient care.
Twenty-five states had joined Florida’s suit by Monday’s decision. Virginia sued separately on March 23 last year and Oklahoma filed its own suit on Jan. 21.
The White House called Vinson’s ruling “a plain case of judicial overreaching.” That echoed language the judge had used to describe the law as an example of Congress overstepping its authority.
“We are analyzing this opinion to determine what steps, if any — including seeking a stay — are necessary while the appeal is pending to continue our progress toward ensuring that Americans do not lose out on the important protections this law provides,” Tracy Schmaler, a spokeswoman for the US Justice Department, said in a statement on Monday.
Attorneys for the Obama administration had argued that the states did not have standing to challenge the law and that the case should be dismissed.
Opponents of the health overhaul praised the decision within minutes of its release on Monday afternoon. Republican House Speaker John Boehner said it shows Senate Democrats should follow a House vote to repeal the law.
“Today’s decision affirms the view, held by most of the states and a majority of the American people, that the federal government should not be in the business of forcing you to buy health insurance and punishing you if you don’t,” he said in a statement.
Democrats just as quickly slammed the decision.
“This lawsuit is nothing more than an attempt by those who want to raise taxes on small businesses, increase prescription prices for seniors and allow insurance companies to once again deny sick children medical care,” Democratic Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid said in a prepared statement.
Stephen Presser, a professor of legal history at Northwestern University in Chicago, called Vinson’s decision “powerful” because it was the first finding that the mandate to purchase insurance can’t be separated from the rest of the law and saying it must be thrown out in its entirety. He called the judge’s analysis “absolutely right.”
Still, he said, “its utterly unclear at this point what long-range effect it will have,” because the ruling is enforceable only in the territory governed by the federal courts of Florida’s northern district, encompassing Pensacola, Gainesville and the state’s capital, Tallahassee.
Three other courts have weighed in on the law, two of them upholding it. In the third case, US District Judge Henry Hudson in Richmond, Virginia, voided the mandatory-coverage component, while allowing the rest of the law to stand.
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