Court strikes down individual mandate for Obamacare

The 2010 health care law’s mandate for most Americans to buy insurance is unconstitutional, said a long-awaited 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals ruling

Responding to the 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals striking down Obamacare’s “individual mandate” for health insurance, California Attorney General Xavier Becerra says his state will “move swiftly to challenge this decision because this could mean the difference between life and death.” (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call file photo)

A federal appeals court on Wednesday struck down the requirement that most Americans have health insurance, nullifying a major part of the 2010 health care law, but punted on the broader question about whether the rest of the law can stand.

A 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals panel ruled, 2-1, in its long-awaited decision that the so-called “individual mandate” to get insurance cannot stand after Republicans zeroed out the tax penalty for not having coverage. The panel sent the case back to a district court in the Northern District of Texas to consider other parts of the law.

[Federal appeals court questions legality of Obamacare insurance mandate]

The decision in Texas v. Azar could eventually put the fate of the health care law back in the hands of the Supreme Court, although Wednesday’s ruling makes it unlikely the courts will settle the issue before the 2020 election. But it could still have a significant impact on the national debate over health care, providing fresh ammunition to candidates who want to emphasize one of the most powerful domestic issues on the campaign trail.

The ruling may remind voters of the differences between the Democratic candidates and President Donald Trump, whose administration called for the entire law to fall in this legal challenge. It could mean yet another presidential election serving in part as a referendum on the law.

The case is expected to have little immediate practical effect since the requirement to buy coverage has not been in effect this year after Republicans effectively repealed it. The Republican state attorneys general who brought the case argued that the tax was so important that, without it, the entire law had to be eliminated.

The opinion directs Judge Reed O’Connor, who struck down the law in full last year, to reconsider parts of the case and do “the necessary legwork” of explaining why particular parts of the law cannot stand without the individual mandate. It may be that the rest of the law must fall along with the individual mandate — or not — but the district court needs to do a more careful analysis of the current law, the 5th Circuit wrote.

“But it is no small thing for unelected, life-tenured judges to declare duly enacted legislation passed by the elected representatives of the American people unconstitutional,” the ruling said.

A separate coalition of Democratic state attorneys general and the House had intervened to defend the law. California Attorney General Xavier Becerra, who led that coalition, said his state will move swiftly to challenge the decision. “It is indispensable to get clarity and certainty,” he said. “And the best way to get certainty is to go to the Supreme Court.”

Congressional Republicans have insisted that, despite the Trump administration’s call to kill the law entirely, they support popular parts of it, such as the preexisting condition protections.

“Nobody in the Senate thought they were repealing Obamacare when they repealed the individual mandate,” said Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Chairman Lamar Alexander, R-Tenn., who has criticized the legal challenge.

In a statement, House Ways and Means Chairman Richard E. Neal, D-Mass., called the ruling “the result of the Trump Administration and congressional Republicans attempting to make dangerous health policy using the courts since they failed to succeed in Congress.”

Niels Lesniewski contributed to this report.

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