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Key health care mandate delayed

The one important health care mandate that the Supreme Court chose not to review last year — the requirement that employers provide insurance coverage for their workers or pay a penalty — will be put off for a year, until 2015, an Obama administration official announced Tuesday.  Even so, the mandate remains under constitutional challenge in a lower court, and the issue could return to the Supreme Court.

The postponement, Assistant Treasury Secretary for Tax Policy Mark J. Mazur said in a statement on the Department of the Treasury’s website, will apply both to the insurance mandate and the quite complex reporting requirements that go with that obligation.  Mazur said that some employers had voiced concern that they could not be ready in time, if the provisions went into effect in 2014, as previously scheduled.  He also said that some employers already were providing such insurance, and that the government did not want to penalize them if they could not be ready to meet all the new legal obligations.

The employer mandate applies to all companies with more than fifty full-time workers.  Failure to have such coverage by next January 1 could lead to fines of $2,000 for each employee.  That is the deadline that has now been extended by a year.

That mandate was one of the main sections of the Affordable Care Act that had been challenged before the Supreme Court last Term.  Without giving any reasons, the Court simply chose not to rule on that specific requirement, even while taking on other key sections.   The Court did uphold what is called the individual mandate, which requires most adult Americans to have health insurance of their own by 2014, or pay a financial penalty (the Court chose to call it a tax) to the Internal Revenue Service.

Liberty University, a Christian college in Lynchburg, Virginia, was one of the challengers last year.  It has argued that the employer mandate was beyond Congress’s powers under the Commerce Clause, and that it violated Liberty’s religious beliefs, protected by the First Amendment.

After the Supreme Court ruled on the other parts of the law, the Justices simply denied review of Liberty University’s petition (docket 11-438).   However, in November, the Justices granted the university’s rehearing petition, and sent the case back to the Fourth Circuit Court to give the challenger a further opportunity to make its case.

The case is now unfolding anew in the Fourth Circuit (Liberty University v. Lew, Circuit docket 10-2347).  A three-judge panel held a hearing on the case on May 16, and a decision could come at any time.  The chances appear good that the case will return to the Supreme Court, no matter how the Circuit Court rules.

The university’s Commerce Clause argument against the employer mandate may be its strongest challenge.  In last year’s decision upholding the individual mandate, the Court majority ruled that Congress did not have the authority under that Clause to enact the provision; rather, that mandate was upheld under Congress’s taxing power. 

Recommended Citation: Lyle Denniston, Key health care mandate delayed, SCOTUSblog (Jul. 2, 2013, 9:37 PM),