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Vinson Gives Health Care Law a Reprieve but Demands More Federal Action

By Jane Norman, CQ HealthBeat Associate Editor

March 3, 2011 -- Implementation of the health care law will move forward following an order by a federal district court member in Florida on Thursday, but a clearly impatient Judge Roger Vinson also ordered the government to move more quickly toward a definitive decision by the Supreme Court on the law’s constitutionality.

His demand contributes to the push among Republicans in Congress, governors and state attorneys general to see the constitutionality of the law settled by the high court at least within the next year — certainly before the next presidential election.

“It should not be at all difficult or challenging to ‘fast-track’ this case,” Vinson wrote in issuing a stay of his own Jan. 31 ruling that the entire health care overhaul law is unconstitutional. He said that his stay was conditional on the Department of Justice filing an appeal of his decision to the 11th Circuit Court of Appeals in Atlanta within seven business days.

“The sooner this issue is finally decided by the Supreme Court, the better off the entire nation will be,” wrote Vinson. “And yet, it has been more than one month from the entry of my order and judgment and still the defendants have not filed their notice of appeal.”

The order in the challenge to the law allows implementation to continue in the 26 states involved in the suit because otherwise, Vinson said, it would be “extremely disruptive,” echoing an argument by the Justice Department. Some state officials had said they were halting implementation because their interpretation was that the law (PL 111-148, PL 111-152) was no longer in effect in their states as a result of Vinson’s Jan. 31 ruling.

Alaska responds
The judge’s order had an immediate impact in Alaska, where GOP Gov. Sean Parnell said his state would “treat the federal health law as being in place.” Parnell had earlier said that since Alaska was one of the parties to the suit, the law was not in effect in that state.

“Going forward, Alaska will make decisions on a case-by-case basis whether the state will undertake with our own money or with federal money how to implement the provisions of the law,” Parnell said in a statement. “I continue to strongly prefer to use state resources for state-based health care solutions to increase access and improve affordability.”

Both sides found something to like in Vinson’s order. Tracy Schmaler, a Justice Department spokeswoman, said the government appreciated that Vinson considered the disruption that would be caused by halting action on the law and that it will “promptly’ comply with his order.

“We welcome the court’s granting of a stay to allow the current programs and consumer protections, including tax credits to small business and millions of dollars in federal grants to help states with health care costs, to continue pending our appeal in the Eleventh Circuit,” Schmaler said in a statement. But she added that the government strongly disagrees with the original ruling and continues to believe the law will stay intact.

“Today Judge Vinson did the responsible thing,” said Adam Winkler, a constitutional professor at the UCLA School of Law and a backer of the health care overhaul.

On the other side, Florida Attorney General Pam Bondi, who’s leading the case on behalf of the states, also hailed the order, saying states “are assured that there will be no more stalling from the federal government.” She added: “While we are disappointed that the stay was granted, we are satisfied that DOJ now has only seven days to file their appeal and seek expedited review or they will lose the stay.”

Legal experts who support the law acknowledged Vinson took shots at the Justice Department in his order about the government not moving quickly enough. But the government decided to first ask Vinson to clarify his ruling, and that lengthy brief was filed on Feb. 17.  “That took a bit of time but it took a bit of time for a good reason,” Winkler said.

It was not immediately clear how states would react to the ruling, experts said.

Among supporters of the law, Ron Pollack, executive director of the health advocacy group Families USA, called Thursday’s order a “victory for common sense” and said it would have been “bizarre and inappropriate for one judge to halt implementation of the entire law while appeals continue.”

But the National Federation for Independent Business, a party to the suit along with the 26 states, said a faster appeals process is good news for the plaintiffs as well.

“The government’s attempts to stymie the judicial process are simply prolonging the uncertainty surrounding the law and do a disservice to the states, small business owners and individuals who are seeking resolution,” said Karen Harned, executive director of the NFIB Small Business Center.

Judge details his thought process
Vinson said he weighed the four factors traditionally considered by courts in whether to grant a stay pending appeal:

  • Whether the applicants have made a strong showing they are likely to prevail.
  • Whether the applicants will be irreparably injured if a stay is not granted.
  • Whether issuing a stay will substantially injure the other parties interested in the case.
  • Where the public interest lies.

Vinson said that both sides have a likelihood of prevailing on appeal and the individual mandate provision has raised novel issues about the constitutional role of government on which there is sharp disagreement.

In addition, he said the law is “very complicated and expensive” to put in place, and the Justice Department argued it would be disruptive to halt its implementation. Vinson said he agreed on that point, though he explored arguments that it’s part of the strategy of supporters to make the law so entrenched it can’t be undone. Nonetheless, “it would be extremely disruptive and cause significant uncertainty” to grind to a halt, he said.

States argued the law is causing them to spend money to comply and so they should not have to implement it while the case is pending. But Vinson said “several unusual factors” argued in favor of a stay.

He noted that his original decision applied to the 26 states that joined the case. Michigan is one, yet a federal district court judge in Michigan has declared the law constitutional in a separate case now on appeal, with oral arguments set for May.

Secondly, states in the suit are taking different approaches on what the ruling means for implementation, he said. And there are states in which the governor and attorney general have taken opposite positions on the suit, he said. That includes Washington and Iowa.

"At this point in time and in light of all this uncertainty, it would be difficult to deny the defendants a stay pending appeal,” Vinson said, but he wanted it to be short.

“As I wrote about two weeks after this litigation was filed: ‘the citizens of this country have an interest in having this case resolved as soon as practically possible,’” Vinson said. “That was nearly eleven months ago. In the time since, the battle lines have been drawn, the relevant case law marshaled, and the legal arguments refined. Almost everyone agrees that the constitutionality of the Act is an issue that will ultimately have to be decided by the Supreme Court of the United States. It is very important to everyone in this country that this case move forward as soon as practically possible.”

Jane Norman can be reached at [email protected]  

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