A key provision of the Obama health care overhaul was struck down Monday by a federal judge in Virginia, just days before another judge will hear a similar legal challenge by Georgia and several other states.
U.S. District Judge Henry Hudson said the law's requirement that all Americans have health insurance or pay a penalty is unconstitutional. He is the first federal judge to invalidate a part of the sweeping overhaul of the American health care system.
The law has been upheld by two other federal judges in Virginia and Michigan. Several other lawsuits have been dismissed and others are pending, including one filed in a Florida court by 20 states, including Georgia. The issue ultimately will be decided by the U.S. Supreme Court.
Hudson ruled that Congress exceeded its legal authority by forcing Americans to purchase health insurance.
"An individual's personal decision to purchase — or decline to purchase — health insurance from a private provider is beyond the historical reach of the Commerce Clause" of the Constitution, Hudson wrote. The Commerce Clause is the section of the Constitution that empowers Congress to regulate businesses that operate across state lines.
The Virginia decision has no immediate impact for consumers, because the judge did not grant the plaintiff's request to suspend implementation of the law. Mandates that took effect in September remain in place, including requirements that insurers cover dependent children until the age of 26 and eliminate lifetime limits on coverage.
Opponents of the law hailed the ruling, specifically the invalidation of the requirement that everyone have health insurance, known as the individual mandate.
"Good timing," said Gov. Sonny Perdue's spokesman Bert Brantley on the Virginia ruling. "It obviously gives our case even more credibility."
Supporters of the health care overhaul stressed that Judge Hudson's ruling is just one among a series of contradictory decisions. They said they believe the Supreme Court will uphold the law.
"This is still the law of the land," said Cindy Zeldin, executive director of Georgians for a Healthy Future.
On Thursday, Pensacola federal judge Roger Vinson, who surprised constitutional scholars when he declared in October that that lawsuit can go to trial, will hear motions for summary judgment in the Florida case.
Like the lawsuit that was the basis for Monday's ruling, the Florida challenge focuses on arguments against the individual mandate. It also addresses the assertion that the law will financially burden states with an explosion of Medicaid cases.
"I don't think any state can afford it," Gov.-elect Nathan Deal said Monday, vowing to continue Georgia's fight against the law. "It will be for our state billions of dollars."
The state Department of Community Health has estimated that the additional cost to the state would start at $100 million to $200 million a year, eventually reaching more than $500 million a year. Supporters of the law say the federal government will bear some of the costs and that the state is capable of covering the rest.
Fazal Khan, an assistant professor of health care law at the University of Georgia, said he sees similarities in the ways Judge Hudson and Judge Vinson are treating the cases, which could indicate a ruling favorable to Georgia. Both judges declined initial motions to dismiss the case, and both expressed reservations about the individual mandate. In October, Judge Vinson wrote that the requirement "is simply without prior precedent," adding that "people have no choice and there is no way to avoid it."
Health care overhaul has stirred strong debate in Georgia, including unsuccessful attempts by the state Legislature to block the federal action. While supporters of the law have accused the state of dragging its feet on implementation, state officials say they are moving forward.
The Virginia ruling could influence public opinion, creating pressure for Congress and the president to rethink the plan, said Wayne Oliver, vice president of Newt Gingrich's Center for Health Transformation. Without the individual mandate, there would be no effective mechanism for covering more than 30 million uninsured Americans — including about a million in Georgia. If that provision is struck down, other aspects could follow, Oliver said.
The Virginia and Florida cases are among about two dozen legal challenges around the country to the health care overhaul. Opinions differ as to how the issue would come before the Supreme Court. Some legal experts predict that the cases will be combined; others say a single case will reach the court first and become the template against which all subsequent cases are weighed. In any case, experts expect the high court to rule on the law before the 2014, when the individual mandate would take effect.