KHN Morning Briefing

Summaries of health policy coverage from major news organizations

Judge In Va. To Rule On Health Law’s Mandate By Year’s End

A federal judge will rule by the end of the year on a Virginia challenge to the federal health law provision requiring people to buy insurance, The New York Times reports. At a three-hour hearing in Richmond Monday, a lawyer for Virginia "argued that if Judge Henry E. Hudson of Federal District Court finds unconstitutional the provision that requires Americans to have health insurance, he should declare the entire law void until the Supreme Court can review it. The lawyer noted that in writing the legislation, Congress failed to include 'severability' language to specify that the rest of the law would survive." Federal lawyers concede that some parts of the law hinge on the mandate, but insisted others could stand alone (Sack, 10/18).

"Hudson told both sides he will have to determine whether Congress can regulate an individual's inactivity -- a person's decision to go without health insurance -- under its constitutional authority to regulate interstate commerce," The Washington Post adds. "The suit is one of more than 15 across the country challenging the federal initiative. Virginia's suit is separate from a case jointly filed in Florida by 20 other states." But, so far, only one judge has ruled on the merits of the case, a Michigan jurist who found the mandate to be constitutional after a religious group filed suit. Hudson acknowledged that his opinion would be "only one brief stop on the way to the United States Supreme Court," where at least one of the cases is expected to end up (Helderman, 10/18). 

The Wall Street Journal: The judge, at this point, appears sympathetic to Virginia's challenge. "Judge Hudson's sharp questioning offered some clues as to how he views each side's case. He showed sympathy for the plaintiff's contention that requiring Americans to carry health insurance amounts to regulating 'inactivity,' and that Congress lacks such a power." A decision allowing such power could prove "boundless," he said, culminating in congressional decisions to force Americans to "eat asparagus" (Adamy, 10/19).

Politico: Hudson was appointed to the bench by President George W. Bush in 2003. Meanwhile, "[t]he federal government argued that Congress has the authority to enact the requirement because whether someone has insurance or not impacts interstate commerce. Government attorneys also argue that the requirement is an integral piece of the health care overhaul" (Haberkorn, 10/18).

The Roanoke Times: "Attorneys for the Obama administration contend the law's 'minimum coverage provision'" -- as the mandate is also called -- "is a legitimate tool to help control health care costs and compel individuals to pay for medical services they inevitably will receive. The administration argues uninsured patients account for $43 billion in annual costs that are shifted to the insured population, to governments and to taxpayers."

"The two sides also sparred over whether Congress properly applied its taxing power by imposing a penalty for those who fail to purchase insurance," with Hudson noting that Obama and other Democrats saying the penalty is not a tax. "Hudson twice mentioned Obama's denial and asked [U.S. Deputy Assistant Attorney General Ian] Gershengorn, 'Was he trying to deceive the people?' Gershengorn said the penalty functions like a tax because the revenue goes into the general treasury and is reported on a taxpayer's annual return" (Sluss, 10/19).

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