Judge Hears States' Health Care Challenge

The fight over President Obama's health care overhaul is in a  Florida court. That state — and 19 others — argue it's unconstitutional to force people to buy health insurance. But the federal government says the states have no right to challenge the law. But a federal judge may let the case proceed.

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President Obama made passing a health care overhaul a top priority. And now that it's law, many states have made fighting it a top priority. The battle has moved to a Florida court where that state, with 19 others, is arguing that it's unconstitutional to force people to buy health insurance. The federal government says the states have no right to challenge the law.

As NPR's Debbie Elliott reports, a federal judge may let the case proceed.

DEBBIE ELLIOTT: The first question U.S. District Judge Roger Vinson of Pensacola asked Justice Department lawyers was just how massive the new health care law is. It's a pretty big act, isn't it, the judge asked, just as the federal government started to lay out its case that the state lawsuit should be thrown out.

Attorney Ian Gershengorn with the U.S. Justice Department replied that his copy was 907 pages long but defended the lengthy legislation, saying the issue demanded a broad and comprehensive approach. He argued that Congress acted well within its rights under the Commerce and General Welfare clauses of the Constitution.

The states are suing over two main provisions in the new law: The requirement that individuals must buy health insurance or face tax penalties, and the expansion of Medicaid to cover more people - an added cost states say they can't afford.

Mr. BILL McCOLLUM (Attorney General, Florida): Obamacare is terrible law. It's terrible constitutional law. And it's rough on the states.

ELLIOTT: That's Florida Attorney General Bill McCollum on the steps of the federal courthouse in Pensacola today. He was flanked by other state attorneys general who joined in the lawsuit, filed just minutes after President Obama signed the health care bill into law last March.

McCollum was seeking the Republican nomination for governor at the time and filed the suit in one of the state's most conservative jurisdictions. He says this is about the power of the federal government to order the states around.

Mr. McCOLLUM: Our whole system of federalism rests and hinges upon the decision of this court. And this is going to first base today as we go around the bases to get to home plate, which will be the day we have this case heard and decided by the United States Supreme Court.

ELLIOTT: And Judge Vinson is likely to keep the ball in play. Today, he said he was inclined to let at least some portions of the lawsuit proceed he said he'd rule by October 15th.

The state's lead counsel, Blaine Winship, called the health overhaul an unprecedented intrusion on the sovereignty of states and the liberty of their citizens. Afterwards, he said the insurance mandate has dangerous implications for the power of Congress.

Mr. BLAINE WINSHIP (Assistant Attorney General, Florida): What this act is purporting to do is to require every American to go out and purchase something, whether he wants to or not, for the first time in the history of this country.

ELLIOTT: But the Justice Department's Ian Gershengorn argued that Americans are already paying for health care in one way or another, whether it be out of pocket, at the doctor's office or hospital, or upfront through insurance coverage. He said Congress is indeed regulating an economic activity under the Commerce Clause because it is regulating how and when health care is paid for.

He also argued that the states don't have the right to sue over the insurance mandate because they can't show harm. The provision doesn't take effect until 2014, and then he said only individual taxpayers should be able to sue once they face a fine for not buying coverage.

The Obama administration made a similar argument in another state's challenge to the health care law. In Virginia, a judge there allowed the case to proceed, citing complex constitutional issues.

Debbie Elliott, NPR News.

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