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Obamacare in Limbo: Mandate Struck Down as Court Mulls Overturning the ACA

Michael Rainey

A long-awaited court ruling that threatened to strike down Obamacare arrived Wednesday, but it failed to provide the conclusive result some critics were hoping for.

In a 2-1 decision, a panel on the 5th Circuit Court of Appeals in New Orleans ruled that the Affordable Care Act’s individual mandate, which requires all Americans to buy health insurance, is unconstitutional. But the court did not rule on the broader question of whether the ACA itself was unconstitutional as a result, and instead sent the case back to a court in Texas for further consideration.

The original case: The appeals court was reviewing an earlier decision by Judge Reed O’Connor of the Federal District Court in Fort Worth, who ruled in a suit brought by a group of Republican state attorneys general and governors that the Affordable Care Act was no longer constitutional given Congress’s elimination of the penalty for those who fail to buy health insurance. The entire law must go, O’Connor said, because the mandate cannot be severed from the rest of the ACA.

Why it matters: If O’Connor can convince the higher court – and possibly the Supreme Court after all is said and done – that his analysis is the correct one, the Affordable Care Act could be revoked. Most experts say the results would be highly disruptive, with roughly 20 million people losing their health insurance and millions more facing a bewildering array of rule changes in the broader health care system.  

Republicans may be relieved: Politically, the circuit court’s decision amounts to an early Christmas present for Republicans, says Margot Sanger-Katz of The New York Times. A final decision in the case is now unlikely before the 2020 election, allowing Republicans to avoid responsibility for creating chaos in the health care system – and to avoid having to formulate a replacement plan for the ACA, a task that has proven all but impossible for conservatives in recent years.  

What happens next: Judge O’Connor has been ordered to “conduct a more searching inquiry” into the case and the reasons for his decision. “It may still be that none of the A.C.A. is severable from the individual mandate, even after this inquiry is concluded,” the two judges who voted to uphold part of O’Connor’s ruling wrote. “But it is no small thing for unelected, life-tenured judges to declare duly enacted legislation passed by the elected representatives of the American people unconstitutional.”

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