Judge rules against entire health reform law

A federal judge in Pensacola declared the health care reform law unconstitutional Monday, agreeing with the arguments in a lawsuit brought by 26 states, including Georgia.

U.S. District Judge Roger Vinson ruled that the insurance mandate provision — requiring individuals to purchase health coverage or face a financial penalty — exceeds Congress’ power to regulate commerce.

The final venue in the battle over the law may be the U.S. Supreme Court. As the Associated Press points out, a federal judge in Virginia has also ruled that the insurance mandate violates the Constitution, but two other federal judges have ruled to the contrary, upholding the insurance requirement.

The Justice Department said it disagreed with the ruling and vowed to appeal. U.S. House Speaker John Boehner, an Ohio Republican, praised the decision. The House, with a new Republican majority, recently voted to repeal the Affordable Care Act, but the Democratic-controlled Senate is unlikely to go the same route.

In his ruling, Judge Vinson went further than the judge in Virginia and declared the entire health care law unconstitutional.  He said the whole law “must be declared void” because the mandate to carry insurance is “not severable” from the rest of the law, the Wall Street Journal reported.

But Vinson also said he would allow the law to remain in effect while the Obama administration appeals his ruling, a process that could take two years, the New York Times reported.

The judge rejected a second claim by the plaintiffs, that the new law violates state sovereignty by requiring states to pay for a fractional share of  a Medicaid expansion that is scheduled for 2014, the Times said.

Judge Vinson, whose ruling was the first to address that question, dismissed the contention that states were being illegally coerced by the federal government. He said they always have the option to withdraw from Medicaid, a program for the poor and disabled that’s jointly financed by the states and the federal government.

Washington, D.C.-based consumer advocacy group Families USA issued a statement criticizing Vinson’s ruling against the reform law. The group said consumer protections and other provisions of the law are too important to lose.

“If this decision were allowed to stand, it would have devastating consequences for America’s families,’’ said Ron Pollack, the group’s executive director. “Children with pre-existing conditions would once again be denied access to health care; insurers could take away health coverage and reinstate lifetime limits on coverage; small businesses would once again be priced out of the market; and seniors would lose their access to no-cost preventive services and help with the cost of prescription drugs.’’

The National Federation of Independent Business, which represents small businesses, had joined the 26 states in the widely watched litigation.

Kaiser Health News provides a copy of the 78-page decision.