A federal appeals court ruled Wednesday that the Affordable Care Act's individual mandate provision is unconstitutional but punted on deciding whether the rest of the landmark health-care law should be tossed out.
The court, in a 2 to 1 decision, is also ordering a lower court judge to reconsider whether ACA, more commonly known as Obamacare, should remain intact.
"The individual mandate is unconstitutional because it can no longer be read as a tax, and there is no other constitutional provision that justifies this exercise of congressional power," the 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals ruling said. "On the severability question, we remand to the district court to provide additional analysis of the provisions of the ACA as they currently exist."
"It may still be that none of the ACA is severable from the individual mandate, even after this inquiry is concluded," the majority said. "It may be that all of the ACA is severable from the individual mandate. It may also be that some of the ACA is severable from the individual mandate, and some is not."
Health policy analysts expect the issue to go all the way to the Supreme Court, which upheld Obamacare in a narrowly divided 2012 ruling. The decision Wednesday decreases the chances of a Supreme Court decision before the 2020 elections.
Texas and other Republican-led states brought the suit, which was defended by Democratic-led states and the House of Representatives. The New Orleans-based court heard arguments in July.
The suit alleged that the Affordable Care Act's individual mandate was unlawful under the federal government's taxing powers after Congress reduced the penalty for not having insurance to $0 in 2017. Texas argued that therefore the ACA must be scrapped.
Democrats said the lawsuit was just the latest Republican legal assault on Americans' health care. Ending Obamacare has been a long-held goal of President Donald Trump and fellow Republicans. Trump unsuccessfully rallied enough Republicans to repeal and replace the health law in 2017.
"California will move swiftly to challenge this decision because this could mean the difference between life and death for so many Americans and their families," Democratic California Attorney General Xavier Becerra, who led a group states in intervening to defend Obamacare, said in a statement.
Democratic lawmakers on Wednesday also blasted Trump and Republicans over the ruling.
"Today's ruling is the result of the Trump Administration and congressional Republicans attempting to make dangerous health policy using the courts since they failed to succeed in Congress," Ways and Means Committee Chairman Richard Neal said in a statement.
"This is a blow to our nation's health care system and the millions of Americans who have gained coverage and protections under the Affordable Care Act. Democrats will continue to fight to protect Americans' access to quality, affordable care," he added.
U.S. District Judge Reed O'Connor of the Northern District of Texas ruled in December that the entire health law was unconstitutional because the individual mandate penalty was essentially eliminated. A coalition of Democratic state attorneys general, led by Becerra, appealed the lower court ruling.
Three judges — Carolyn Dineen King, Jennifer Walker Elrod and Kurt D. Engelhardt — heard oral arguments over the constitutionality of the health law in July. Two of the Republican judges at the time suggested they may side with the lower court, which struck down the law.
King was nominated to the appeals court by President Jimmy Carter in 1979. Elrod was nominated by President George W. Bush in 2007. Engelhardt was nominated by President Donald Trump last year.
— The Associated Press contributed to this report.