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Court voids Obamacare mandate — but not the whole law

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The Obama legacy is still being written,Obamacare,FISA....



The lower court must reconsider fate of the law, likely pushing off a Supreme Court showdown past the election.
Protesters in front of the US Supreme Court.  Mark Wilson/Getty Images

A federal appeals court on Wednesday struck down Obamacare’s individual mandate in a decision that immediately thrusts the health care law to the forefront of the 2020 elections.
However, the appeals court ruling largely ducked the central question of whether the Affordable Care Act remained valid after Congress removed the penalty for not having health insurance. The judges also prolonged the legal proceedings by sending the case back to a Texas federal judge who previously ruled the entire law was unconstitutional to reconsider how much of it could survive.

The high-stakes ruling keeps the legal threat to Obamacare alive while reducing the likelihood the Supreme Court could render a final verdict on the law before the next elections. Still, the court’s decision could renew pressure on President Donald Trump and Republicans to explain how they will preserve those insurance protections after failing to agree on an Obamacare replacement for years.
The latest challenge to Obamacare was brought by more than a dozen Republican-led states that argued the law is no longer constitutional after Congress jettisoned the individual mandate penalty in the 2017 Republican tax package. The mandate was originally upheld by the Supreme Court seven years ago as a legitimate use of congressional taxing power — and without that penalty, the states argued, the entire law should fall.
Democratic-led states heading Obamacare's legal defense said they would quickly challenge Wednesday's appeals court decision, which they said aided Trump politically.
"For now, the President got the gift he wanted — uncertainty in the healthcare system and a pathway to repeal — so that the healthcare that seniors, workers and families secured under the Affordable Care Act can be yanked from under them," said California Attorney General Xavier Becerra, who led the Democratic defense.
The 5th Circuit said its decision to send the case back to District Court Judge Reed O'Connor was largely precipitated by the Trump administration's decision to switch legal positions in the case. The Justice Department originally said just the law's individual mandate and main insurance protections should be abolished. The department, under Attorney General William Barr, earlier this year expanded its legal assault on Obamacare to argue the entire law should be found unconstitutional only in the Republican-states challenging the law.
"The rule of law demands a careful, precise explanation of whether the provisions of the ACA are affected by the unconstitutionality of the individual mandate as it exists today," the 5th Circuit Court of Appeals wrote.
The appeals court decision was silent on whether it thought the law's insurance protections should be struck down. The decision, issued hours after the latest Obamacare enrollment season ended, does not interrupt coverage for anyone covered through Obamacare's insurance marketplaces or Medicaid expansion.
The new ruling, which comes one day before the PBS NewsHour & POLITICO Democratic Debate will energize the already robust health care conversation in the 2020 elections. Democrats have sparred over ambitious plans for reaching universal coverage, from a government-run insurance option to the more sweeping “Medicare for All” plan. Republicans have bashed those ideas as “socialized medicine” that will lead to runaway taxes and rationed care.
However, renewed attention on the legal threat to the ACA could refocus Democrats on defending the law’s insurance protections for preexisting conditions. Democrats in the mid-term election pummeled Republicans over their attacks on the law, which they believe helped them take back control of the House.
Republicans have vowed to protect individuals with preexisting conditions, but many are wary of reopening the Obamacare debate before the elections. They failed to agree on an Obamacare replacement when they had total control of the federal government two years ago, and they haven’t advanced a new plan since then, despite recent encouragement from Trump.
Many legal scholars, including Obamacare opponents, have sharply criticized the latest lawsuit as baseless. They argue courts typically avoid striking entire laws if they can stand without provisions found invalid, and Congress decision to zero out just the mandate penalty in 2017 is proof lawmakers meant for the rest of the ACA to stand.
Legal predictions about Obamacare have often proved misguided, however, and the future of the law remains uncertain nearly a decade after it was enacted.
Susannah Luthi contributed to this report.

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