The U.S. Justice Department said on Thursday that the part of Obamacare requiring individuals to have health insurance is unconstitutional, an unusual move that could lead to stripping away some of the most significant and popular parts of the law.
In a court case filed by Texas and 19 other states, the Justice Department said the requirement for people to have insurance - the individual mandate - was unconstitutional.
A coalition of 20 US states sued the federal government in February, claiming the law was no longer constitutional after last year's repeal of the penalty that individuals had to pay for not having insurance. But in this instance it agrees with the state that the individual mandate and other requirements should be deemed illegitimate as of January 1, 2019. For instance, it did not go after the creation of health insurance marketplaces, premium subsidies for low-income members and Medicaid expansion. In the new suit, California is leading a group of Democrat-led states in defending the law.
The major difference is that the justice department, under Donald Trump, has largely switched sides.
The US attorney general, Jeff Sessions, said in a letter to Congress on Thursday that Trump, who campaigned on repealing the law and almost did so his first year in office, approved the legal strategy.
Donald Verrilli Jr, Barack Obama's top supreme court lawyer who defended the law, called the decision "a sad moment".
Three attorneys for the government withdrew from the case just minutes before the Justice Department's filing in federal court in Fort Worth, Texas, which signaled an internal rift within the administration over its role in defending USA law, according to University of Michigan Law Professor Nicholas Bagley.
"It's just one more part of the story of trying to politicize the Justice Department", said Jost, a supporter of the health law.
While Justice Department attorneys often advocate for laws they may personally disagree with, those three civil servants instead chose to exit from the case, which Bagley described as "almost unheard of". Indeed, sign-up season for 2018 under the Trump administration resulted in only a slight enrollment drop-off from Obama's a year ago.
The mandate in Obamacare was meant to ensure a viable health insurance market by forcing younger and healthier Americans to buy coverage.