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Federal appeals court questions legality of Obamacare insurance mandate

10 July 2019

During oral arguments in a case with momentous stakes for consumers and politicians ahead of the 2020 elections, two members of a three-judge panel of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 5th Circuit grilled lawyers representing Democratic-led states and the U.S. House to explain why the Affordable Care Act remains valid.

When the law was proposed, friends and foes of "Obamacare" agreed that the tax was essential to persuade healthy people to get insured, thereby keeping premiums in check.

President Donald Trump campaigned in 2016 on the promise to repeal and replace the ACA.

The judges focused on whether Obamacare lost its legal justification after Trump in 2017 signed a law that eliminated a tax penalty used to enforce the law's mandate that all Americans buy health insurance. "We'll continue fighting to protect Washingtonians' access to affordable health care all the way to the United States Supreme Court".

Last year, Texas and a coalition of Republican-led states sued, saying the law became unconstitutional when Congress reduced to zero the law's penalty for forgoing coverage.

The tax reform eliminated tax penalties for not having insurance.

"If the right wing wins the lawsuit, families from one end of America to the other will lose", Senate Minority Leader Charles E. Schumer said from the Capitol steps, where Democrats held photos of Americans who've gained coverage or marketplace protections from Obamacare. A third, appointed by Democratic President Jimmy Carter, stayed silent throughout the almost two-hour oral argument hearing in New Orleans, which follows a December decision by federal Judge Reed O'Connor of the Northern District of Texas calling for the law to be struck down.

"We will fight like the dickens to save Americans' health care", said California Attorney General Xavier Becerra. This ruling has the potential to reshape the political debate should the ACA face another existential threat, in addition to fueling questions of what comes after the ACA for both Republicans and Democrats. Judge Jennifer Elrod, who was appointed by Republican President George W. Bush, asked during Tuesday's hearing on a sweltering day in New Orleans.

Josh Blackman, a professor at South Texas College of Law who attended arguments, said he expects the court to remand the case back to the lower court to figure out which parts of Obamacare harm the plaintiffs and should be blocked.

Republican leaders in 20 states led by Texas filed the lawsuit in 2018, arguing that because the individual mandate is key to the ACA, but is no longer required to be enforced, the entire Affordable Care Act is unconstitutional and should be struck. Angie Craig and Dean Phillips, as well as Minnesota Attorney General Keith Ellison, reiterated their support for the law during a conference call with reporters.

Pro-ACA groups warned of the peril to consumers if the law were struck down. "You can see now how dramatic it would be to allow that to occur without the opportunity to appeal the lower court's decision".

This year, the Legislature did nothing to expand health coverage under existing law or propose alternatives to Obamacare, Pogue said. Later that year, Congress passed a measure that repealed the tax penalty but left the rest of Obamacare intact.

Douglas Letter, arguing for the now-Democratic controlled House of Representatives, said that Texas and other states are exaggerating the impact of the law Trump signed in 2017 eliminating the mandate.

Numerous points and counterpoints laid out at the hearing have been part of the case since it began. On appeal, the Justice Department changed course and decided the entire ACA should be invalidated.

Tuesday's arguments are the latest in a lawsuit filed by Republican officials in 18 states, led by the Texas Attorney General's Office.

Federal appeals court questions legality of Obamacare insurance mandate