By Amanda Becker
(Reuters) – President Donald Trump’s administration has stepped up its attack on the Obamacare healthcare law, telling a federal appeals court it agrees with a ruling by a U.S. judge in Texas that the entire statute is unconstitutional and should be struck down.
The Justice Department, in a two-sentence letter to the U.S. 5th Circuit Court of Appeals filed on Monday, said it backed U.S. District Judge Reed O’Connor’s December ruling in Fort Worth finding the Affordable Care Act violated the U.S. Constitution because it required people to buy health insurance.
The letter said the Justice Department would file a more extensive legal briefing later.
Previously, the Trump administration had said portions of Obamacare should be struck down and others should survive, including a state-led expansion of Medicaid health insurance for the poor. Trump had said he would not cut that aspect when campaigning for the White House, although his 2020 budget proposal slashed the program’s funding.
O’Connor ruled on a lawsuit brought by a coalition of 20 Republican-led states including Texas, Alabama and Florida that said a Trump-backed change to the U.S. tax code made the law unconstitutional.
On Tuesday, Trump tweeted, “The Republican Party will become ‘The Party of Healthcare!’” He did not elaborate.
The 2010 healthcare law, seen as the signature domestic achievement of Trump’s Democratic predecessor, Barack Obama, has been a flashpoint of American politics since it passed, with Republicans, including Trump, repeatedly attempting to overturn it.
Democrats made defending the law a powerful messaging tool in the run-up to last November’s elections, when opinion polls showed that eight in 10 Americans wanted to defend the law’s most popular benefits, including protections for insurance coverage for people with pre-existing conditions. The strategy paid off and Democrats won a 38-seat majority in the U.S. House of Representatives.
Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer said the move to overturn Obamacare will overshadow the Trump administration’s portrayal of the conclusion of Special Counsel Robert Mueller’s probe of Russian interference in the 2016 presidential election as a victory.
“Mark my words. It’s far more important to the American people because it involves their lives and the lives of their families,” Schumer said on the Senate floor.
Obamacare survived a 2012 legal challenge at the Supreme Court when a majority of justices ruled the individual mandate aspect of the program, which requires individuals to buy insurance or pay a penalty, was a tax that Congress had the authority to impose.
In December, O’Connor ruled that after Trump signed a $1.5 trillion tax bill passed by Congress last year that eliminated the penalties, the individual mandate could no longer be considered constitutional.
“The taxing authority by Congress that led to the legitimate reason for Obamacare being upheld is gone,” White House aide Kellyanne Conway told reporters on Tuesday. “We now have a mandate without a penalty.”
Conway said Obamacare had not been a “magic elixir” since more than 27.4 million non-elderly individuals in the United States were without health insurance in 2017, according to the Henry J. Kaiser Family Foundation.
A group of 17 mostly Democratic-led states including California and New York on Monday argued that the law was constitutional because the individual mandate is a “lawful choice between buying insurance or doing nothing,” they wrote in court papers.
About 11.8 million consumers nationwide enrolled in 2018 Obamacare exchange plans, according to the U.S. government’s Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services.
(Reporting by Scott Malone in Boston and Amanda Becker and Alexandra Alper in Washington; Editing by Bill Trott and Jonathan Oatis)