Government appeals judge’s ruling on health care mandate
ATLANTA— The federal health care overhaul’s core requirement to make virtually all citizens buy health insurance or face tax penalties is constitutional because Congress has the authority to regulate interstate business, the Justice Department said in its appeal of a ruling that struck down the Obama administration’s signature legislation.
The government’s 62-page motion filed Friday to the US Court of Appeals for the 11th Circuit argued that Congress had the power to enact the overhaul’s minimum coverage requirements because it is a “rational means of regulating the way participants in the health care market pay for their services.’’
The motion also warned that other pieces of the overhaul, including a law that blocks insurers from denying coverage to people because of preexisting conditions, would be unworkable without a minimum coverage provision.
Twenty-six states filed a lawsuit that said Congress had exceeded its authority by requiring that all citizens buy health insurance or face tax penalties. US District Judge Roger Vinson of Florida agreed in a Jan. 31 ruling that said President Obama’s entire health care overhaul is unconstitutional.
Vinson ruled against the overhaul on the grounds that Congress exceeded its authority by requiring nearly all Americans to carry health insurance, an idea dating back to Republican proposals from the 1990s but now largely rejected by conservatives.
His ruling followed the same reasoning as one last year from a federal judge in Virginia who struck down the insurance requirement. But while the first judge left the rest of the law intact, Vinson invalidated provisions that range from Medicare discounts for seniors with high prescription costs to a change that allows adult children up to age 26 to remain on their parents’ coverage.
At the center of Vinson’s ruling and the government’s challenge is the legality of the requirement that Americans carry health insurance except in cases of financial hardship. Those who cannot show they are covered by an employer, government program, or their own policy would face fines from the IRS when the program takes effect in 2014.
Vinson ruled that lawmakers do not have the power to penalize citizens for not doing something, but the Justice Department said he overreached.
The government disputed Vinson’s assertion that Congress can’t penalize someone for not buying health care coverage, saying the requirement was a “quintessential exercise’’ of the legislative branch’s powers. It said the judge “impermissibly substituted its own judgment for that of the elected branches’’ by declaring that an insurance requirement can’t be imposed until people actually seek medical care.
Some states have cited Vinson’s decision in refusing to cooperate with the health care law. But the judge issued another ruling in March ordering states to continue implementing the law while the case makes its way through the courts.