Health-care reform law is constitutional, federal judge rules

Legal challenges to health-care reform include a lawsuit filed on behalf of Liberty University in Virginia. On Tuesday, a federal judge dismissed that suit. Others remain outstanding.

A federal judge in Virginia has concluded that President Obama’s health-care reform law complies with the requirements of the Constitution.

The decision by US District Judge Norman Moon in Lynchburg, Va., comes in one of several legal challenges mounted by opponents of the controversial health-care law.

A federal judge in Michigan upheld the law in a ruling in October. Similar litigation is under way before federal judges in Florida and Richmond, Va.

Plaintiffs are hopeful the cases will eventually reach the US Supreme Court.

In a 54-page ruling released on Tuesday, Judge Moon said the health-care reform law fits “well within Congress’ authority under the Commerce Clause.”

The Lynchburg lawsuit was filed on behalf of Liberty University, a conservative Christian school founded by the Rev. Jerry Falwell. The suit was also filed on behalf of several individuals who claim the new law will force them to subsidize abortions in violation of their religious beliefs.

In rejecting challenges to the law on religious grounds, the judge said the act contains “strict safeguards at multiple levels to prevent federal funds from being used to pay for abortion services beyond those in cases of rape or incest, or where the life of the woman would be endangered.”

The suit also attacked the reform effort as an unconstitutional expansion of federal power at the expense of individuals and state governments.

At the center of the controversy over the reform law is the so-called individual mandate – the requirement that every qualifying American purchase a government-designated level of health insurance or pay a penalty.

Opponents claim the provision is not a valid regulation of interstate commerce. They say Congress does not have the power to order Americans to purchase a particular product and then levy a fine if the product isn’t purchased.

Congress is attempting to regulate inactivity rather than interstate commerce, these opponents say.

Government lawyers defend the reform measure as a valid exercise of federal power to regulate a national market in health insurance. They say that an individual who declines to participate in the market is making a decision that will have an impact on the market nonetheless. Congress has the power to address that impact through legislation, they say.

Moon agreed.

Congress determined, he noted, that for the health-care reform effort to reduce rates, everyone must be required to participate in the program – including healthy individuals who might otherwise decline insurance coverage.

The issue, Moon said, is similar to a landmark US Supreme Court decision that endorsed congressional regulation of home-grown wheat for home consumption. Although the wheat would never be sold on the market, the high court ruled that Congress could regulate it because it would affect the overall wheat market by reducing demand for wheat that isn’t home-grown.

The same principle applies to health insurance, the judge said. “Far from ‘inactivity,’ by choosing to forgo insurance, plaintiffs are making an economic decision to try to pay for health care services later, out of pocket, rather than now, through the purchase of insurance,” Moon wrote.

“As Congress found, the total incidence of these economic decisions has a substantial impact on the national market for health care by collectively shifting billions of dollars on to other market participants and driving up the prices of insurance policies,” he said.

A lawyer in the case told the Associated Press that he would appeal Moon’s decision to the Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals in Richmond.

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