Federal appeals court agrees individual mandate unconstitutional, leaves rest of ‘Obamacare’ to lower court

CHARLESTON, W.Va. — A federal appeals court on Wednesday struck down the individual mandate of former President Barack Obama’s health care law.

Judges, however, also punted questions about the rest of the law to a district judge who previously ruled “Obamacare” as unconstitutional.

The 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals’ 2-1 ruling prolongs answers about the future of “Obamacare” and health insurance coverage for around 20 million people.

The legal challenge goes back to the Tax Cuts and Jobs Act of 2017; one of the law’s provisions zeroed out the requirement for purchasing insurance coverage.

Eighteen Republican-led states, including West Virginia, are challenging the health care law. The group received a victory last year when Judge Reed O’Connor of the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of Texas struck down the penalty for not purchasing insurance and the entirety of the law.

The U.S. Department of Justice announced in March its support for affirming O’Connor’s decision.

Twenty Democratic-led states, led by California Attorney General Xavier Becerra, oppose last year’s decision, as does the U.S. House of Representatives.

“I believe it’s a regrettable decision that was issued,” Becerra said Wednesday. “Not because the ruling by the 5th Circuit undid the entire Affordable Care Act, but because it leaves us today in a state of great uncertainty.”

Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton, who is leading the Republican-state coalition, applauded the court’s decision.

“The Fifth Circuit correctly held that the individual mandate is unconstitutional, and we look forward to the opportunity to further demonstrate that Congress made the individual mandate the centerpiece of Obamacare and the rest of the law cannot stand without it,” he said in a statement.

The legal challenge raises concerns about the future of the law and its provisions, including coverage for pre-existing conditions as well as states’ Medicaid expansion efforts. West Virginia expanded Medicaid coverage in 2014, and the state Department of Health and Human Resources reported Monday around 158,000 West Virginians are enrolled in the program.

“Long term, I think you have to say where we head is unclear,” Becerra said.

Kelly Allen, the director of policy engagement at the West Virginia Center on Budget & Policy, said the effects of striking down the entire law would be devastating in West Virginia.

“Nearly every family in West Virginia would be negatively impacted if the ACA were to be struck down. Pre-existing condition protections, substance use treatment that is now covered by Medicaid, affordable Medicare prescription costs, and more are all at risk with a negative court decision,” she said.

Circuit Judge Jennifer Walker Elrod, in the majority opinion, said the district court will have to determine which provisions cannot be separated from the individual mandate.

“It may still be that none of the ACA is severable from the individual mandate, even after this inquiry is concluded. It may be that all of the ACA is severable from the individual mandate. It may also be that some of the ACA is severable from the individual mandate, and some is not,” she wrote.

“But it is no small thing for unelected, life-tenured judges to declare duly enacted legislation passed by the elected representatives of the American people unconstitutional. The rule of law demands a careful, precise explanation of whether the provisions of the ACA are affected by the unconstitutionality of the individual mandate as it exists today.”

West Virginia Attorney General Patrick Morrisey spoke favorably of the Wednesday’s decision; he previously told MetroNews his concern with “Obamacare” is increasing premiums.

“This decision reaffirms our stance that Obamacare’s individual mandate is unconstitutional, yet it keeps in place protections for those with preexisting conditions,” he said Wednesday in a statement. “Contrary to fear mongers who say the sky is falling, nothing in today’s decision immediately changes any provision beyond the individual mandate – we’re going to ensure that protections for pre-existing conditions are maintained.”

Morrisey told MetroNews in March he supports protections for pre-existing conditions as well as individuals needing Medicaid coverage.

U.S. Sen. Joe Manchin, D-W.Va., has criticized Morrisey for the lawsuit multiple times, including during last year’s U.S. Senate contest when the two faced off. Manchin also has led attempts to have the Senate Legal Counsel intervene in the lawsuit.

“This court decision further delays a final verdict and continues the ongoing uncertainty for individuals that have health coverage through the ACA,” he said. “Time and time again, I have stated that the ACA is not perfect, but we simply cannot throw the baby out with the bathwater. It is unconscionable that we are still debating whether or not to rip coverage away from individuals living in this country with preexisting conditions.”

Manchin also asked Morrisey to withdraw West Virginia from the lawsuit and Congress to improve the current system.

“Protecting West Virginians healthcare has always been my top priority and I will continue to fight for every West Virginian’s access to quality, and affordable health insurance,” he added.

“Obamacare” will remain in effect as long as the legal challenge continues. Allen said West Virginians should not be afraid of losing their coverage in the immediate future.

“West Virginia’s state lawmakers can and should act now to enshrine the ACA’s pre-existing protections into state law,” she added.

Becerra announced the California Department of Justice is preparing a petition for the U.S. Supreme Court on the ruling, adding the only certainty for the law is the country’s highest court upholding the statute.

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