Health Law

Judge allows Affordable Care Act to remain in effect pending appeal of his decision

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A federal judge in Fort Worth, Texas, has stayed his ruling striking down the entire Affordable Care Act.

In a decision on Sunday, U.S. District Judge Reed O’Connor said he was issuing the stay pending appeal “because many everyday Americans would otherwise face great uncertainty.” The New York Times, the National Law Journal and Courthouse News Service have coverage, while How Appealing links to the decision.

In his original Dec. 14 decision, O’Connor said the law’s individual mandate requiring Americans to maintain health insurance coverage was no longer constitutional after Congress set the tax penalty for failure to comply at zero dollars. Because the individual mandate is unconstitutional, the entire health care law is invalid, O’Connor had ruled.

The law creates health insurance exchanges, protects people with pre-existing conditions, allows children to have coverage through their parents’ policies until age 26, and guarantees “essential health benefits” that include mental health, maternity and drug coverage.

The U.S. Justice Department had argued the individual mandate is unconstitutional, along with provisions of the law banning insurers from denying coverage or charging more based on medical condition or history. But the department maintains other provisions can stand, including those that establish the health insurance exchanges and expand Medicaid coverage.

Twenty states, led by Texas, are challenging the health law. Sixteen states and Washington, D.C., intervened to defend the law.

In his new decision, O’Connor said the plaintiffs have standing and the intervenor defendants are unlikely to succeed in their appeal. The individual mandate is essential to the health law and it can’t be severed from the rest of the law, O’Connor said.

Congress itself could sever the mandate from the rest of the law, but “the court cannot do that for Congress,” O’Connor said. “The more courts step into breaches for Congress, the more courts will be called upon to step into breaches for Congress.”

O’Connor noted that the defendants had not objected to a stay of his earlier decision.

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