HARRISBURG, Pa. (CN) – A Pennsylvania federal judge on Tuesday became the third to rule that a provision of the new health care law that would require most Americans to buy insurance is unconstitutional.
He said that provision can be severed from the law only alongside two other provisions – one of which prohibits insurers from denying coverage to children under 19 with pre-existing conditions.
“The issue is whether Congress can invoke its commerce clause power to compel individuals to buy insurance as a condition of lawful citizenship or residency,” U.S. District Judge Christopher Conner wrote. “The court concludes that it cannot. The power to regulate interstate commerce does not subsume the power to dictate a lifetime financial commitment to health insurance coverage.”
Conner, who was appointed to the Middle District of Pennsylvania by President George W. Bush, granted summary judgment to plaintiffs Barbara and Gregory Bachman, who own a bait-and-tackle shop in Etters, Pa.
The so-called individual mandate provision of the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act is not set to take effect until 2014. Conner agreed that the provision could be severed to preserve the rest of the act, but pointed out that Congress specifically tied the individual mandate to two other provisions.
One provision prohibits insurers from varying premiums based on factors such as health status, location and gender. The second prohibits insurers from denying coverage to children under 19 with pre-existing conditions.
“Absent the individual mandate, or some other source of subsidy, enforcement of these guaranteed issue and community rating provisions will likely drive insurers from the market, threatening the stability of the health insurance market,” the 51-page decision states. “Hence, as currently written, these provisions are sustainable only in conjunction with the individual mandate.”
The Bachmans say they were paying for private health insurance until around March 2001, when their monthly premium skyrocketed from $600 to $1,200. With this change, the couple decided it would be more cost-effective to forego health insurance and pay for medical treatment out-of-pocket. In an April 2010 lawsuit, they say this approach has worked for them and left them with no outstanding medical bills.
Dozens of other lawsuits have been filed in various federal courts across the country to fight the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act, since President Barack Obama signed it into law in March 2010.
Most cases have been dismissed for lack of standing. Of the courts to rule on the merits, Conner joins two others who found that the individual mandate provision is unconstitutional. Three other judges upheld the law.
These cases are currently making their way through the various U.S. Courts of Appeal. The 6th Circuit upheld the law as constitutional in June, while the 11th Circuit affirmed an unconstitutional finding two months later.
On Thursday a three-judge panel of the 4th Circuit vacated a pair of Virginia rulings on the merits. The Virginia judges were at odds as to the constitutionality of the individual mandate, but the federal appeals court determined that neither judge had standing to reach this issue.
The Supreme Court is expected to ultimately rule on the legislation.