A federal judge in Virginia dealt a temporary setback to the Affordable Care Act on Monday. But health care reform should ultimately withstand constitutional challenges filed by opponents. And that makes it all the more aggravating that Florida's highly partisan leaders are trying to stonewall its implementation, demonstrating both contempt for federal authority and a lack of compassion for the 4 million Floridians without health insurance and other residents who could benefit under the new law.
Three federal judges have now ruled on the constitutionality of the new health care reform law. Two found that Congress has the power to require individuals to purchase health insurance or pay a tax penalty. U.S. District Judge Henry Hudson of Virginia, an appointee of President George W. Bush, made the opposite call on Monday. Florida's challenge, led by Republican Attorney General Bill McCollum and joined by 19 other states, will be heard Thursday before a federal judge in Pensacola who has already expressed reservations about the law. But all this is a warm-up act. Ultimately the U.S. Supreme Court will decide, and the sooner these cases reach the high court the better.
Hudson concluded that requiring nearly all Americans to obtain health insurance from a private provider was "beyond the historical reach" of prior cases interpreting the power of Congress to regulate interstate commerce.
But District Judge Norman Moon, also from Virginia, ruled last month that a decision not to purchase health insurance was an economic act with significant consequences. "Regardless of whether one relies on an insurance policy, one's own savings, or the backstop of free or reduced-cost emergency room services, one has made a choice regarding the method of payment for health care services one expects to receive."
Supreme Court precedents suggest that the individual mandate is defensible under the Constitution, since individuals who choose to forgo health insurance coverage skew the national market and shift billions of dollars in costs from the uninsured onto those with health insurance.
Plus, Hudson's ruling preserves every part of the law except for the individual mandate, and fails to block any part of it while appeals are taken. Even this conservative judge found that the rest of the law can stand.
That fact, however, escaped Florida's leaders on Monday, who gloated that the ruling was progress for their anti-health reform efforts. Senate President Mike Haridopolos promised Floridians will ultimately opt out all together under a constitutional amendment he's proposing: "If Obama- Care somehow survives these legal challenges, Floridians can have the same opportunity to do what companies and big labor unions are already doing — opt out of this new law." That's a waste of time and money on an issue that ultimately will be decided at the U.S. Supreme Court. The real message coming from the Republican leadership in Tallahassee is not just a disregard for federal authority but for millions of Floridians who can't find or afford health insurance. Their message to their constituents: You're on your own.