HARRISBURG, Pa. — The requirement in the national health-care overhaul law that individuals buy health insurance is unconstitutional, a federal judge in Pennsylvania ruled Tuesday in a question that the U.S. Supreme Court is widely expected to settle.
The ruling by Judge Christopher C. Conner in Harrisburg was issued in one of more than 30 lawsuits nationwide that have been filed over the 2010 law that is President Barack Obama's signature initiative. It was filed by a Pennsylvania couple who do not have health insurance, but believe they would be subject to the mandate.
Conner, who was appointed to the federal bench in 2002 by President George W. Bush, said the mandate that individuals buy health insurance or pay a penalty starting in 2014 is an unconstitutional extension of authority granted to the federal government under the Constitution's commerce clause.
"The nation undoubtably faces a health care crisis," Conner said. "Scores of individuals are uninsured and the costs to all citizens are measurable and significant. The federal government, however, is one of limited enumerated powers, and Congress's efforts to remedy the ailing health care and health insurance markets must fit squarely within the boundaries of those powers."
The power to regulate interstate commerce, Conner wrote, does not include the power to dictate a lifetime of buying health insurance. Left standing, such a requirement would effectively sanction Congress's exercise of police power, he wrote.
But Conner rejected an argument by the plaintiffs – a York County couple, Barbara Goudy-Bachman and Gregory Bachman – that the mandate is "disastrous to this nation's future, such as the Bachmans' prediction of America evolving into a socialist state. These suggestions of cataclysmic results ... are both unproductive and unpersuasive."
Conner said the Bachmans, who have two children and are self-employed, do not quality for Medicare or Medicaid, and dropped their coverage in 2001 because their premiums exceeded their mortgage payments. Since then, they have paid for their medical expenses in full, he said.
However, they contended that paying for health insurance is forcing them to reorder their finances. Specifically, the Bachmans have held back from buying the car of their choosing because they will be unable to make the payments when the insurance mandate goes into force, he wrote.
While most of the massive law can remain intact, Conner said, certain provisions are linked to the health insurance requirement and must also be struck down. Those provisions are designed to guarantee that insurance companies cannot discriminate against or deny coverage to the sick or people with pre-existing conditions.
Justice Department spokeswoman Schmaler said in an email that the agency believes, "as appellate courts have already held," that the law is constitutional, but she did not indicate whether it would appeal the Pennsylvania ruling.
Separate lawsuits have already reached three appeals courts, with one of those courts, 11th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in Atlanta, ruling against the mandate in August.
Last week, a three-judge panel of the 4th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in Richmond, Va., rejected two lawsuits on technical grounds. In one, it ruled that the penalty for not buying insurance amounts to a tax and that a tax can't be challenged before it's collected. In the other, the panel said the plaintiff, the state of Virginia, lacked legal standing to file its lawsuit.
In June, the 6th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in Cincinnati upheld the constitutionality of the insurance requirement, prompting an appeal to the Supreme Court by the plaintiff, the Thomas More Law Center of Ann Arbor, Mich.
The federal government has not responded to the law center's appeal. And while it is widely expected that the Supreme Court will have the final say in the matter, the court has not indicated how or when it might act.
The Supreme Court will not meet again until early fall, and the earliest a health care case would be heard is early in 2012.