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Obama Administration Seeks Clarification of Health-Care Ruling

Updated on

A judge was asked by the Obama administration to clarify the scope of his ruling invalidating federal health-care reform legislation after Alaska’s governor said the law no longer applies in his state.

U.S. District Judge Roger Vinson in Pensacola, Florida, last month ruled that the portion of the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act that mandates people procure minimum coverage starting in 2014 is unconstitutional. He then granted a request by 26 states to invalidate the entire law, saying the mandate was integral to all aspects of the statute.

The federal government, in papers filed with Vinson yesterday, asked him to clarify whether that decision relieves the suing states of their rights and obligations under the act while the U.S. pursues an appeal.

“We believe it is important to put to rest any doubts about the ability of states and other parties to continue to implement these critical programs and consumer protections provided under this statute,” Tracy Schmaler, a Justice Department spokeswoman, said in an e-mailed statement announcing the U.S. filing.

The 955-page act was signed into law by Obama on March 23, with the intent to provide health insurance coverage to 32 million more people by compelling all people over age 18 to obtain coverage, barring insurers from denying coverage to those who are already sick and from imposing lifetime limits on costs.

Florida Lawsuit

Then-Florida Attorney General Bill McCollum filed what became the 26-state lawsuit the same day the president signed the bill. Virginia Attorney General Kenneth Cuccinelli filed a separate lawsuit challenging the insurance provision.

Vinson, who was nominated to the federal bench by President Ronald Reagan, a Republican, in 1983, is one of two U.S. judges who have concluded that the insurance mandate exceeds the legislative power allocated to Congress under the Constitution.

U.S. District Judge Henry Hudson in Richmond, Virginia, found that portion of the legislation invalid in a Dec. 13 ruling in Cuccinelli’s case that left the remainder of the act standing. Hudson was selected for the bench by Republican President George W. Bush in 2002.

The Obama Administration appealed Hudson’s ruling to the U.S. Court of Appeals in Richmond.

Appeal Plans

The administration has said it will appeal Vinson’s decision. Matthew Miller, a Justice Department spokesman, said yesterday that the government hasn’t yet filed papers preserving its right to appeal with the U.S. Court of Appeals in Atlanta.

Two other U.S. judges, each of whom were appointed by President Bill Clinton, a Democrat, have upheld the constitutionality of the measure.

Alaska Governor Sean Parnell, citing Vinson’s ruling, said yesterday that his state wouldn’t seek federal grant money to implement the health care reform legislation. Alaska was one of the states that joined Florida’s lawsuit.

“The Florida court’s declaratory judgment that the federal health-care law is unconstitutional is the law of the land as it applies to Alaska,” Parnell said in a statement.

Wisconsin Attorney General J.B. Van Hollen said Feb. 1 that the ruling in the Florida case relieved his state of any obligation or duty under the federal health-care law. He said that day that the act was “dead.”

“We don’t think we can advise that this law is void, Ohio Attorney General Mike DeWine, a Republican, said on Feb. 1.

The U.S., in its filing yesterday, said Vinson’s decision “potentially implicates hundreds of provisions of the act and, if it were interpreted to apply to programs currently in effect, duties currently in force, taxes currently being collected, and tax credits that may be owed at this time or in the near future, would create substantial uncertainty.”

The case is State of Florida v. U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, 10-cv-00091, U.S. District Court, Northern District of Florida (Pensacola).

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