Atlanta ruling strikes down reform mandate

A U.S. appeals court in Atlanta ruled Friday that the health reform law’s mandate for individuals to purchase insurance is unconstitutional.

The 2-1 opinion by the 11th Circuit Court of Appeals sided with 26 states, including Georgia, that challenged the 2010 Affordable Care Act. It’s a major blow to the Obama administration’s fight to preserve the historic law.

The court ruled that the rest of the reform law could remain in effect. But experts on both sides of the debate have called the individual mandate the linchpin of the entire law.

The Atlanta-based court’s ruling contrasts with a decision by the appeals court for the 6th Circuit, based in Cincinnati, which upheld the individual mandate as constitutional. That case has already been appealed to the Supreme Court.

The Court of Appeals for the 4th Circuit, based in Richmond, has yet to rule on a separate challenge by the Commonwealth of Virginia.

“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,” Judges Joel Dubina and Frank Hull said in a jointly written 207-page opinion.

Judge Dubina was appointed by Republican President George H.W. Bush, while Judge Hull was appointed by Democratic President Bill Clinton. Politico reported that Friday’s ruling was the first time a judge appointed by a Democratic president had voted against the insurance mandate.

Judge Stanley Marcus, also appointed by Clinton, agreed with the Obama administration and dissented from the majority opinion.

The majority “has ignored the undeniable fact that Congress’ commerce power has grown exponentially over the past two centuries and is now generally accepted as having afforded Congress the authority to create rules regulating large areas of our national economy,” Marcus wrote.

The Justice Department is expected to appeal the ruling, and the case is undoubtedly heading for the U.S. Supreme Court.

The Atlanta panel’s hearing on the reform law, held in June, drew national attention. Here’s GHN’s article on the hearing.

The Wall Street Journal noted that several legal challenges are working their way through the nation’s courts, but Friday’s ruling came in the highest-profile lawsuit of them all, because of the number of states involved.

The decision affirmed part of a January decision by federal Judge Roger Vinson of Florida, who ruled the insurance mandate unconstitutional. But the Atlanta court overturned the part of Vinson’s decision that voided the entire reform law.

The court said the unconstitutional insurance mandate could be severed from the rest of the law, with other provisions remaining “legally operative.”

The panel also said that the reform law’s Medicaid expansion is constitutional, ruling against the states. That expansion is expected to add more than 600,000 people to Georgia’s Medicaid rolls.

The Affordable Care Act is opposed by Republican political leaders across the country, including such Georgia officials as Gov. Nathan Deal, Attorney General Sam Olens and Insurance Commissioner Ralph Hudgens. Deal, though, has set up a committee to investigate whether the state should pursue a health insurance exchange, as mandated by the reform law.

Deal and Olens issued a joint statement Friday praising the ruling, and saying Georgia will continue to press its case against the health reform law.

“Federal health care reform is on life support, and this case will be decided by the Supreme Court of the United States,” the statement said. “Today is a huge step toward victory, but it is also a day that emphasizes the importance of the work ahead.”

Many provisions of the health reform law have already been implemented, such as covering preventive benefits, banning lifetime spending caps, and allowing children to remain on their parents’ health plan till age 26.

Here is a PDF of the entire court ruling, courtesy of Kaiser Health News.