The Florida judge who overturned a portion of the Patient Protection & Affordable Care Act never meant to stop its implementation, according to federal lawyers looking to block a ban on President Barack Obama’ signature achievement to date.
Administration lawyers argued last night that the plaintiffs, 26 states and a trade group, challenged only Obamacare’s “individual mandate” for near-universal healthcare coverage beginning in 2014. Although Judge Roger Vinson of the U.S. District Court for Northern Florida agreed, he never addressed stopping the law’s implementation, according to court documents.
The plaintiffs argued that the judge clearly meant to do just that, prompting a sharp retort from Obama’s lawyers.
“Plaintiffs profess surprise at defendants’ ‘inexplicabl[e] delay’ in seeking this clarification but, at the same time, they continue to take advantage of numerous provisions of the Act that they did not challenge and that the Court did not address,” they wrote. “[S]ince the court entered its judgment on Jan. 31, at least 24 of the 26 plaintiff states have applied for additional grants authorized or appropriated by the [Affordable Care Act], continued to draw down grant funds previously awarded under the ACA, or otherwise availed themselves of resources made available by the ACA.
“Indeed, South Carolina has continued to drawn down exchange planning grant funds, even though it has declared the act ‘void and unenforceable.’ Similarly, Utah has described the declaratory judgment as an ‘injunction against further implementation’ of the act, but has continued to draw down … funds,” according to court documents.
Although the administration can claim to be ahead 3-2 in court challenges to its landmark achievement, after Judge Gladys Kessler of the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia rejected a challenge last week, it might not matter in the long run.
That’s because all of the judges who have weighed in so far have agreed on one thing: The individual mandate is a penalty, not a tax. The matter, expected to land on the U.S. Supreme Court’s docket next year, could hinge on that distinction. Congress has the power to enact taxes, not penalties, leaving an opening for the Supremes to strike down the mandate and fatally wound Obamacare.
Beginning in 2014, Americans will have to prove they have health insurance or pay fines ranging from $95 to $695 by 2016 (or 2.5 percent of taxable income, whichever is greater).