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U.S. Supreme Court rejects Obamacare challenge

Justices vote 7-2 against latest effort by Morrisey, other Republican AGs

CHARLESTON — The latest attempt by West Virginia Attorney General Patrick Morrisey and others to overturn a federal health insurance program was rejected by the U.S. Supreme Court on Thursday.

In a 7-2 decision, the Supreme Court ruled against Morrisey and 17 other Republican state attorneys general and two private individuals in their effort to overturn the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act. A majority of justices ruled the attorneys general had no standing to bring the case in the first place.

“Plaintiffs do not have standing to challenge (the Affordable Care Act’s) minimum essential coverage provision because they have not shown a past or future injury fairly traceable to defendants’ conduct enforcing the specific statutory provision they attack as unconstitutional,” the ruling stated.

Justice Stephen Breyer wrote the majority’s opinion, with fellow liberal judges Sonia Sotomayor and Elena Kagan consenting, along with Chief Justice John Roberts and conservative justices Clarence Thomas and Amy Coney Barrett also consenting.

Morrisey signed West Virginia to a Texas lawsuit against the Affordable Care Act after Congress eliminated the individual mandate penalty, setting the penalty’s dollar amount at $0 in 2017, for not having health insurance. California and 15 other states and the District of Columbia intervened to defend the ACA from the Republican attorneys general.

The Republican states argue with the individual mandate penalty zeroed out, the entire law is unconstitutional. Breyer said if there is no monetary penalty, there is no injury from which to grant relief.

“Neither the individual nor the state plaintiffs have shown that the injury they will suffer or have suffered is ‘fairly traceable’ to the ‘allegedly unlawful conduct’ of which they complain,” Breyer wrote. “What is that relief? The plaintiffs did not obtain damages. Nor, as we just said, did the plaintiffs obtain an injunction in respect to the provision they attack as unconstitutional. But, more than that: How could they have sought any such injunction? The provision is unenforceable.”

Only conservative justices Samiel Alito Jr. and Neil Gorsuch dissented. They accused their fellow justices of avoiding the issue of the ACA’s constitutionality.

“Instead of defending the constitutionality of the individual mandate, the Court simply ducks the issue and holds that none of the act’s challengers, including the 18 States that think the act saddles them with huge financial costs, is entitled to sue,” Alito and Gorsuch wrote. “Can this be correct? The ACA imposes many burdensome obligations on states in their capacity as employers and the 18 states in question collectively have more than a million employees. Even $1 in harm is enough to support standing. Yet no state has standing?”

In a statement Thursday afternoon, Morrisey also said he was disappointed that the court didn’t specifically look at the constitutional issues of keeping the individual mandate in place.

“This case was always about: one, ensuring that individuals could not be coerced into purchasing health insurance against their will; and, two, making the insurance system far more affordable for hard-working Americans,” Morrisey said. “Too many West Virginians have suffered from skyrocketing premiums and need better, more affordable health care options. We will keep fighting for affordable coverage and against coercive, individual mandates that represent the opposite of freedom.”

According to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, 17,217 West Virginians have enrolled in ACA marketplace healthcare coverage, and 193,341 West Virginians receive healthcare through Medicaid expansion. The ACA also requires that health insurance companies provide coverage for people with pre-existing medical conditions, which protect more than 700,000 West Virginians.

Despite the lawsuit’s effort to cause the entire ACA to be overturned had the Supreme Court ruled in its favor, Morrisey began backing away from those claims last year. In a statement shortly after the Supreme Court heard oral arguments in the case in November 2020, a Morrisey spokesperson said he supports removing the individual mandate, but keeping the rest of ACA intact.

During the 2020 legislative session, Morrisey pushed for a law to help protect people with pre-existing medical conditions from possibly losing their healthcare coverage if the high court threw out the entire ACA. The bill passed the West Virginia Senate, but later died in committee in the House of Delegates. Opponents of the bill claimed it created a high-risk pool, possibly raising health care premiums for people with pre-existing conditions.

The ACA lawsuit played a prominent role in his 2020 re-election campaign when he faced attorney Sam Brown Petsonk, defeating his Democratic opponent with 64 percent of the vote. The issue also came up during his race against U.S. Sen. Joe Manchin, D-W.Va., in 2018, with Manchin beating Morrisey by more than 3 percent. Since 2018, Manchin has continued to advocate for the ACA and urged Morrisey to drop the lawsuit.

“This is the third time the Supreme Court has considered the constitutionality of the Affordable Care Act and each time they have allowed the law to stand,” Manchin said. “I’ve always said the Affordable Care Act is not perfect but it is past time to move forward and seek lasting solutions that ensure every West Virginian and American has access to affordable and quality healthcare. We can do this in a bipartisan way and I remain committed to working with my colleagues to make these productive changes.”

Steven Allen Adams can be reached at sadams@newsandsentinel.com.

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