3 federal lawsuits against health system reform keep judges busy

A 20-state suit clears a major hurdle to move forward as an injunction request in Michigan is rejected and lawyers await a ruling in Virginia.

By Doug Trapp — Posted Oct. 25, 2010

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October was a busy month for judges overseeing three federal lawsuits seeking to block the national health system reform law from being implemented: One lawsuit will proceed. A judge denied an injunction in a second lawsuit. And lawyers arguing a third case await a judge's ruling that is expected by year's end.

A federal judge in Florida ruled Oct. 14 that a 20-state lawsuit against the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act can proceed because there are constitutional questions about the law's Medicaid expansion and mandate for individuals to have health insurance.

"The power that the individual mandate seeks to harness is simply without prior precedent," wrote U.S. District Judge Roger Vinson of the Northern District of Florida in a 65-page decision.

Meanwhile, attorneys for Virginia and the Dept. of Health and Human Services offered arguments on Oct. 18 relating to an injunction to block the health reform law. Virginia Attorney General Ken Cuccinelli said Judge Henry E. Hudson of the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Virginia in Richmond is expected to reach a decision by the end of the year.

Cuccinelli, who filed Virginia's solo lawsuit, said that if the federal government can penalize individuals for not buying insurance, then the government can force Americans to buy pretty much anything. "This case is ultimately not about health insurance or health care. This case is about protecting liberty. It is about the outer reach of federal power," he said. Cuccinelli said he expects the Virginia lawsuit and the others to eventually reach the U.S. Supreme Court.

The 20-state lawsuit was filed by 16 attorneys general, four governors, the National Federation of Independent Business and two private citizens. HHS is the defendant, with representation by Dept. of Justice attorneys. The states and HHS are scheduled to argue their cases at a summary judgment on Dec. 16, said Florida Attorney General Bill McCollum.

A third challenge to the health reform law, before a federal judge in Michigan, was denied. A request by a conservative Christian legal group for a preliminary injunction against the health reform law was rejected Oct. 7 by Judge George Caram Steeh in the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Michigan in Detroit. Steeh ruled that the Commerce Clause gives the federal government power to enact the health insurance mandate and the associated penalty.

The lawsuit was filed by the Thomas More Law Center, a nonprofit Christian legal advocacy organization in Ann Arbor, Mich., on behalf of itself and four Michigan residents. The center plans to appeal the decision.

2 key arguments in play

In Florida, Vinson ruled that the multistate lawsuit has merit to proceed on two grounds.

First, the health reform law's expansion of Medicaid eligibility to 133% of the federal poverty level could represent a commandeering of state government by the federal government.

Second, the individual insurance mandate could exceed Congress' authority to regulate interstate commerce under the U.S. Constitution. Individuals will be required to have health insurance beginning in 2014.

Vinson dismissed four other arguments by the plaintiffs, including that the penalty for not following the individual insurance mandate is an unconstitutional tax and that a requirement for employers to provide insurance is an unfair burden to states as employers.

"This ruling confirms the significance of this lawsuit protecting against the federal health care act's intrusions on individual liberty and limited government," McCollum said.

Dept. of Justice attorneys are confident that their arguments will prevail, said department spokeswoman Tracy Schmaler. "This case is in the early stages of litigation, and the department will continue to vigorously defend this law in ongoing litigation."

Ron Pollack, executive director of Families USA, a consumer health care advocacy group, said the case should not distract states or the federal government from implementing the health reform law as effectively as possible. "This case is really a politically motivated ploy aimed at diverting attention from the many benefits of the new law."

The 20 states that are part of the lawsuit are Alabama, Alaska, Arizona, Colorado, Florida, Georgia, Idaho, Indiana, Louisiana, Michigan, Mississippi, Nebraska, Nevada, North Dakota, Pennsylvania, South Carolina, South Dakota, Texas, Utah and Washington.

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