ATLANTA — A federal appeals panel’s ruling striking down the centerpiece of President Barack Obama’s health care overhaul moves the question of whether Americans can be required to buy health insurance a step closer to the U.S. Supreme Court.
A divided three-judge panel of the 11th Circuit Court of Appeals ruled Friday that Congress overstepped its authority when lawmakers passed the so-called individual mandate, the first such decision by a federal appeals court. It’s a stinging blow to Obama’s signature legislative achievement, as many experts agree the requirement that Americans carry health insurance — or face tax penalties — is the foundation for other parts of the law and key to paying for it.
Administration officials said they are confident the ruling will not stand. The Justice Department can ask the full 11th Circuit to review the panel’s ruling and will also likely appeal to the Supreme Court.
Legal observers long expected the case would ultimately land in the high court, but experts said Friday’s ruling could finally force the justices to take the case.
“There needs to be a pronouncement that’s nationwide,” said Carl Tobias, a professor at the University of Richmond School of Law. “It would be almost impossible to implement it if we have splintered decisions from different geographic circuits. The Supreme Court may feel now it has to take it.”
J. Peter Rich, a Los Angeles-based health care attorney, said the Supreme Court had never weighed in on an issue such as the provision requiring individuals to buy health insurance.
“They have never ruled on this specific issue,” he said. “This really is a case of first impression, although the Obama administration may try to argue otherwise.”
Rich said it’s not unconstitutional for individual states to have such requirements, noting that Massachusetts has a similar law in place. However, the high court has yet to weigh in on whether a federal requirement passes muster.
In the Atlanta ruling, Chief Judge Joel Dubina and Circuit Judge Frank Hull found in a 207-page opinion that lawmakers cannot require people to “enter into contracts with private insurance companies for the purchase of an expensive product from the time they are born until the time they die.”