As we discussed in an earlier e-alert, the constitutional challenges raised by states, certain public interest groups and individuals to the new health care legislation have found more traction than commentators originally expected. Now, a second federal district court has ruled the Act’s individual mandate unconstitutional. Judge Roger Vinson of the United States District Court for the Northern District of Florida concluded that Congress lacked the authority under the Commerce Clause to enact the Act’s individual mandate, reasoning that Congress could not force citizens to purchase health insurance. Giving Congress this authority, he believed, would make the “enumeration of powers in the Constitution [in] vain for it would be difficult to perceive any limitation on federal power.” Judge Vinson’s decision creates an even split between the two courts holding the Act constitutional, and the two courts holding it unconstitutional.

Unlike the first court to hold the individual mandate unconstitutional, however, Judge Vinson concluded that the individual mandate could not be severed from the remaining portions of the Act, meaning that the entire Act would be struck down. Judge Vinson compared the Act’s other provisions – such as the restrictions on denying coverage based upon preexisting conditions and the mandatory coverage of dependants until age 26 – to a “finely crafted watch” that “cannot function as originally designed” without the individual mandate. “There are simply too many moving parts in the Act and too many provisions dependent (directly and indirectly) on the individual mandate” to enforce the Act’s other provisions without that mandate.

While Judge Vinson’s decision may be a victory for those who oppose health care reform, it is surely not the final word. The constitutionality of health care reform will be reviewed by federal appellate courts and (most likely) by the United States Supreme Court. In the meantime, employers and insurers will continue to comply with the Act’s various deadlines and provisions pending a final determination.