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On July 17, 2012, a Nebraska federal court dismissed a lawsuit filed by seven states challenging contraception coverage requirements in the federal health care law. Judge Warren Urbom of Lincoln tossed out the federal lawsuit on the ground that the plaintiffs did not have the standing to file a lawsuit seeking to block the part of the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act (PPACA). The Republican-dominated administrations in seven states, Nebraska, Florida, South Carolina, Michigan, Texas, Ohio, Oklahoma, and Texas, along with co-plaintiffs, a nun, a missionary, and three Nebraska-based church-affiliated institutions, the Catholic Mutual Relief Society of America, Pius X High School, and Catholic Social Services had challenged the contraception rule on the ground that it was against their religious liberties.
The act, popularly known as Obamacare, is a brainchild of President Barack Obama and seeks to extend affordable health care benefits to all U.S. citizens. The President signed the bill into law on March 23, 2012, following a series of considerations by the Congress for over a year. The United States Supreme Court upheld the health care overhaul law on June 28, 2012.
The Health and Human Services mandate under the Affordability Care Act makes contraception coverage a part of all health care plans, including those for employees working in institutions affiliated to religious bodies. The Catholic Church that runs hospitals, schools, and outreach programs strongly opposes the use of birth control measures. These religious bodies argued before the court that the challenged part of the act was a violation of their rights to reject contraceptives and abortion-causing drugs for women.
The judge dismissed the lawsuit meant to block the health care reforms based on disposition by the U.S. Justice Department that the enforcement of the contraception law has been deferred until August 2013 to enable the administration and religious groups to work out a "safe harbor" provision. Judge Urbom believes the plaintiffs have no locus standi to challenge the federal administration as the protection guaranteed under the First Amendment is not applicable in this case. According to him, there is no immediate threat to the plaintiffs as the law is undergoing a process to accommodate concerns raised by them and they have failed to establish their legal standing to sue the federal law.
On June 28, 2012, the Supreme Court upheld the federal health care law with five judges in favor and four expressing dissent. The court ruled that the mandatory requirement put forth by the act for most U.S. citizens to buy health insurance coverage or pay penalty was valid and approved by the Congress power to levy taxes. Chief Justice John G. Roberts Jr. sided with four liberal judges supporting the health care reforms.
The Supreme Court granted a review of the following four issues that have been the focus of lawsuits challenging the Affordable Care Act.
The Supreme Court heard arguments on these four issues for six hours over three days between March 26 and March 28, 2012. The court upheld the individual mandate and Chief Justice Roberts wrote in the judgment that the penalty for not purchasing insurance could be legally characterized as a tax and the constitution permitted for the same. The court saw problems with the Medicaid expansion issue, but fell short of striking it down. It observed that the Congress has no authority in coercing states to accept the expansion by threatening to stop federal payments. The Supreme Court allowed Medicaid expansion on the ground that it could proceed as long as the federal government did not penalize states not participating in the law's expansion.
More than two dozen lawsuits have been filed by states, colleges, TV networks, and private parties in different federal courts across the country. More than 25,000 individuals and entities are party to one lawsuit, Shreeve vs. Obama. The majority of Obamacare lawsuits have been filed by Republican-administered states and a variety of religious and professional groups opposing certain parts of the Health and Human Services. The following are some of the rulings of a number of district courts on the constitutional validity of the Affordability Care Act:
The U.S. Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit ruled supporting constitutional of the Affordable Care Act on November 8, 2011. Two of the three judges observed that the act was well within the constitutional power of the Congress and not against the Commerce Clause of the U.S. Constitution. The court also pointed out "the right to be free from federal regulation is not absolute, and yields to the imperative that Congress be free to forge national solutions to national problems, no matter how local—or seemingly passive—their individual origins."
In September 2011, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit reversed the district court verdict striking down the individual mandate part in the Affordability Care Act in Commonwealth of Virginia v. Sebelius lawsuit (December 2010). The court observed that Virginia’s challenge to the health care law lacked standing.
In the Liberty University appeal lawsuit, the court supported the district court ruling upholding the health care act. It held that the federal Anti-Injunction Act bars individuals to approach federal courts against assessment or collection of the penalty by the Internal Revenue Service for non-purchasing of health insurance. However, the individuals are free to bring an action before the courts in the event of refusal by the IRS to refund the assessment. This was the first judgment accepting the mandate penalty as a tax.
The U.S. Court of Appeals for the Eleventh Circuit upheld the decision by Florida north federal judge Roger Vinson (December 2010), striking down the individual mandate clause. However, the court overruled Vinson’s February 2011 ruling on severance of the clause. The bench in a two-to-one majority observed that the Congress had exceeded its constitutional powers by adopting the individual mandate clause.
The verdict partially rejected claims by the states on the ground that the Congress has the right since the beginning to alter or expand the Medicaid program and the federal administration must bear all costs associated with it. The states are exempted from raising revenue through taxes and funding their own health care programs if they do not agree with the federal government changes.
The U.S. Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit affirmed the constitutionality of the health care act. Judge Jeffrey Sutton and Judge Boyce Martin Jr. upheld the validity of the act while announcing his decision in Thomas More Law Center v. Obama lawsuit. The court ruled that the Congress's Commerce Clause powers allow it the authority to include the individual mandate clause in the Affordability Care Act.
The split verdict between the Sixth Circuit and Eleventh Circuit led the plaintiffs and defendants to approach the U.S. Supreme Court that delivered its landmark judgment on June 28, 2012.
Other Important Health Care Lawsuits
There are as many as 23 lawsuits filed in U.S. courts against the health care act. In May 2012, more than 40 Catholic hospitals and institutions, including Franciscan University of Steubenville, the New York Archdiocese, and Notre Dame, filed 12 lawsuits challenging the HHS mandate in the federal health care act. According to the plaintiffs, the HHS mandate requiring contraceptive coverage is an attack on their moral convictions and right to practice religion. The Obama administration and Kathleen Sebelius, secretary for Health and Human Services, have been named defendants. Earlier, in March 2012, two Protestant Church-affiliated schools had filed a similar lawsuit, alleging violation of religious liberty.
Judge Keith Starrett of Hattiesburg Division, Mississippi South Federal Court, has set the bench trial date for a lawsuit challenging the constitutional validity of the health care act for October. The Obamacare lawsuit was originally filed by Governor Phil Bryant and 10 other plaintiffs from the state. A number of lawsuits filed in Arizona, Arkansas, District of Columbia, Missouri, Nevada, Hampshire, Middle District of North Carolina, Tennessee, Oklahoma, and Texas between March and August 2010 are awaiting court ruling.
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