Justice Department takes aim at heart of health law

11 June, 2018, 14:48 | Author: Nina Hammond
  • The Trump administration is calling a key part of Obamacare that protects individuals with pre-existing conditions unconstitutional

In the court filing late Thursday, President Trump's administration said the department will no longer defend key parts of the ACA - also known as Obamacare - including the requirement that people have health insurance and provisions that guarantee access to health insurance regardless of any medical conditions, drawing a dramatic reaction from Valley lawmakers.

The Justice Department said that also nullified two other major provisions of Obamacare linked to the individual mandate, including one barring insurance companies from denying coverage to people with preexisting conditions.

Since Congress repealed the penalty for not having insurance in its tax reform package a year ago, much of the rest of the insurance statute becomes unconstitutional in 2019 and must be "struck down", attorneys for the Justice Department said in a court filing Thursday.

Democrats don't mind this comparison, in part because polls have shown that not only is health care a top issue for many voters, but it's an issue that helps Democrats.

Sessions said in his letter that the Justice Department was not arguing that the entire law does not pass constitutional muster.

The issue became a flash point that helped derail Republican efforts to repeal the law previous year, with opponents of the party's health bills speaking loudly against weakening protections for the sick and vulnerable.

Republicans have been trying to dismantle the Affordable Care Act - a centerpiece of President Barack Obama's legacy - since it was enacted in 2010 without any Republican votes. The brief was filed in Texas v. Azar, a case brought in February by Texas and 19 other Republican-led states. He recently ruled that 16 other states and the District of Columbia could join in the case formally to defend the ACA against the challenge.

But Congress repealed the tax penalty for people without insurance a year ago, and the individual mandate can no longer be described as a tax when the repeal takes effect in January, the brief says.

"We strongly condemn the Administration's decision not to defend the patient protections provided in the Affordable Care Act, an established law of the land", APA President Altha Stewart, M.D. said. Collins, who voted against the Republican bills to repeal the Affordable Care Act in the Senate a year ago, also expressed concern about the administration's new push to undo it.

Sixteen states have intervened in the case to support the law. The short version is that the administration is refusing to defend the ACA in court, even though it's standard practice for the Justice Department to defend laws even when they don't agree with them.

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America's Health Insurance Plans, a major lobby for insurers, said in a statement that although premiums for next year will increase because the individual mandate penalty for not carrying insurance is being zeroed out in 2019, the market has been stabilizing. Yet how they would do so was far from clear, especially given Congress' inability so far under the administration to pass health-care legislation. Under another provision, the community rating provision, insurers were not allowed to set premiums based on a person's health history.

"Zeroing out the individual mandate penalty should not result in striking important consumer protections", the group said.

A group of Democratic state attorneys general, lead by California's Xavier Becerra, are riding to the law's defense.

Moreover, if the Trump administration did not want to defend the ACA expressly, it could simply have filed a jurisdictional motion, asserting that the states are not injured by the lack of an individual mandate penalty and that the litigation is not yet timely, as the tax is still in effect.

The Washington Post reported that three career Justice attorneys involved in the case - Joel McElvain, Eric Beckenhauer and Rebecca Kopplin - withdrew before the filing at 6 p.m. Thursday, an unusual time for such an action.

The main trade association for health insurers came out strongly against the administration's position. A Justice Department spokeswoman said the lawyers' withdrawal had been a department decision, declining to specify whether the lawyers had personally objected to continuing on the case.

Republicans on Capitol Hill had no advance warning that the administration was going to assert that protections for people with preexisting conditions is unconstitutional - a position that defies President Donald Trump's promises to maintain those protections.

Senate Democrats have vowed to make health care policy a priority this summer, as they gear up for midterm elections this November. Conservatives at the time accused the Justice Department of politicization.

The Supreme Court is considering some of the issues this term.

The Texas district court judge, Judge Reed O'Connor, still has to rule on the request Texas and Texas' allies have made for the preliminary injunction.

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