Stakeholders Await Tuesday’s Appeals Court Hearing on Reform Law
Proponents and critics of the federal health reform law eagerly are anticipating a hearing on Tuesday in which a three-judge panel of the Fourth U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in Richmond, Va., will hear oral arguments in two separate Virginia-based lawsuits that question the constitutionality of the law and its individual mandate, CQ HealthBeat reports (Norman, CQ HealthBeat, 5/8).
Last year, two judges who presided over the lawsuits in federal district court delivered divergent rulings in the cases, which were filed by Virginia state officials and officials at Liberty University, a private Christian college, respectively.
In the state lawsuit, which was filed in March 2010, shortly after the health reform law was enacted, Virginia Attorney General Ken Cuccinelli (R) argued that the mandate -- which requires nearly all U.S. residents to obtain health coverage by 2014 or pay a penalty -- is unconstitutional and also conflicts with a state law that protects state residents from such federal insurance mandates.
In his December 2010 ruling, U.S. District Court Judge Henry Hudson agreed with the state's argument, ruling that the mandate is unconstitutional because it exceeds Congress' power to regulate interstate commerce. While Hudson struck down a central provision in the law, he did not invalidate the law or block its implementation.
In the Liberty lawsuit, university officials and five state residents argued that Congress exceeded its constitutional authority by requiring the university and other similar entities and businesses that employ more than 50 people to provide health insurance coverage. The university argued that it potentially could face as much as $1.1 million in fines if the requirement is upheld. The plaintiffs also claimed that the law violates their religious rights because some of the money collected through new insurance regulations would be used to cover abortions, which the university opposes.
The hearing on Tuesday marks the first time that the constitutionality question will be considered at the appellate level, moving the issue one step closer to a widely expected resolution by the U.S. Supreme Court.
The three-judge panel on Tuesday will conduct four 20-minute sessions, during which plaintiffs and defendants in the two lawsuits will be allowed to present their arguments. The court has a record of delivering its decisions quickly, usually within a few months of a hearing.
The court's 14-member judicial panel is an almost even split of Democratic and Republican appointees. However, the identities of the three judges presiding over Tuesday's hearing will not be announced until the day of the hearing.
Implications of Hearing
Cuccinelli said he hopes to build momentum to the Supreme Court with a win on the appellate level. He said, "If we have nothing but wins all the way up to the Supreme Court, there is an element of momentum â¦ where the justices consider what has gone on before the case came to them" (Sack, New York Times, 5/8).
Ronald Pollack -- executive director of Families USA, a prominent supporter of the overhaul -- said that if the judges rule against the law, they would undermine some its provisions that have been implemented to regulate the health insurance market. As a result, some of those benefits could be taken away from consumers, he said, noting that public opinion also will play a factor in the judges' decision.
Meanwhile, lawmakers also are watching the lawsuits closely.
House Energy and Commerce Chair Fred Upton (R-Mich.) said that the "future of the law remains murky" because courts still are validating it. He said, "Both supporters and opponents should be able to agree that resolving the case expeditiously in the courts, the Supreme Court, is in the best interest of the country."
House Majority Whip Eric Cantor (R-Va.) also criticized the possible "years of litigation and uncertainty" that could result if courts do not act quickly (CQ HealthBeat, 5/6).This is part of the California Healthline Daily Edition, a summary of health policy coverage from major news organizations. Sign up for an email subscription.