Extra, extra, read all about it: Breaking News!
In a 2-1 decision issued December 18, a Fifth Circuit panel held that the individual mandate under the Affordable Care Act (ACA) is unconstitutional after Congress zeroed out the penalty in tax reform legislation.
Although the ruling was a victory for the 18 Republican-led states that initiated the challenge to the ACA, the appeals court side-stepped the critical issue of severability—i.e., whether other parts of the sprawling health care law could stand without the mandate—remanding to the district court for further proceedings.
In December 2018, U.S. District Court for the Northern District of Texas Judge Reed O’Connor ruled that no part of the ACA could stand after the Tax Cuts and Jobs Act (TCJA) essentially eliminated the ACA’s “shared responsibility payment” for failing to comply with the mandate to buy insurance. The judgment was stayed pending appeal.
As a practical matter, the panel decision maintains the status quo and prolongs the litigation, likely leaving a final resolution of the ACA’s fate until after the 2020 elections.
California Attorney General Xavier Becerra, who headed the coalition of mostly Democratic-led states that intervened to defend the law, said California “will move swiftly to challenge this decision.”
“For now, the President got the gift he wanted—uncertainty in the healthcare system and a pathway to repeal—so that the healthcare that seniors, workers and families secured under the Affordable Care Act can be yanked from under them,” Becerra said in a statement.
Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton applauded the panel’s decision, saying the opinion recognized “that the only reason the Supreme Court upheld Obamacare in 2012 was Congress’ taxing power, and without the individual mandate’s penalty, that justification crumbled.”
Judge Jennifer Walker Elrod, who President George W. Bush appointed to the Fifth Circuit, wrote the majority opinion, which was joined by Judge Kurt D. Englehardt, an appointee of President Donald Trump. The third panel member, Judge Carolyn Dineen King, was appointed by President Jimmy Carter, dissented.
The appeals court first concluded that the individual plaintiffs, the 18 plaintiff states, and the intervening states all had standing, an issue that the parties debated during oral arguments in July.
On the merits, the majority held once Congress zeroed out the shared responsibility payment, the individual mandate could no longer be upheld as a tax as it was under the Supreme Court’s decision in Nat’l Fed. of Independent Bus. v. Sebelius, 567 U.S. 519 (2012).
After finding the individual mandate was unconstitutional, the majority declined to resolve whether, or how much, of the ACA could stand on its own.
Instead, the appeals court remanded to the district court to determine “with more precision what provisions of the post-2017 ACA are indeed inseverable from the individual mandate.” The appeals court also told the lower court to consider the federal government’s “newly-suggested relief of enjoining the enforcement only of those provisions that injure the plaintiffs or declaring the Act unconstitutional only as to the plaintiff states and the two individual plaintiffs.”
The complexity of the ACA statutory scheme, which includes provisions regulating insurance, amending Medicare, funding preventative health care programs, enacting antifraud requirements, and establishing or expanding drug regulations, requires “a careful, granular approach” for determining severability, which the majority was not satisfied O’Connor had done.
In the majority’s view, O’Connor’s decision was incomplete because it didn’t sufficiently address the intent of the 2017 Congress in zeroing out the penalty in the TCJA. Nor did O’Connor parse “through the over 900 pages of the post-2017 ACA, explaining how particular segments are inextricably linked to the individual mandate.”
The appeals court therefore remanded with instructions for the district court “to employ a finer-toothed comb . . . and conduct a more searching inquiry into which provisions of the ACA Congress intended to be inseverable from the individual mandate.”
In her dissent, Judge King argued that by refusing to address severability, which in her view was plain given that Congress in 2017 removed the individual mandate’s enforcement mechanism while leaving the remaining provisions of the ACA intact, the majority “unnecessarily prolong[s] this litigation and the concomitant uncertainty over the future of the healthcare sector.”
King said she would vacate the district court’s order because none of the plaintiffs had standing to challenge the coverage requirement, would conclude that the coverage requirement is constitutional without the enforcement mechanism, and would find, in any event, the provision “entirely severable” from the remainder of the ACA.
Texas v. United States, No. 19-10011 (5th Cir. Dec. 18, 2019).
Article from American Health Lawyers Association.