Federal court gives partial victory to Columbus and other cities on changes to Obamacare

John Futty
The Columbus Dispatch
City Attorney Zach Klein

The Columbus city attorney's office is proclaiming "a major legal victory" after a federal court in Maryland struck down four provisions of a Trump administration rule regarding the Affordable Care Act (ACA) that were challenged in a lawsuit filed by Columbus, Cincinnati and three other cities.

The victory was partial, however, in that the court upheld five other provisions that the cities challenged in the lawsuit, which was filed in 2018.

The practical effect of the decision is unclear now that President Joe Biden and his administration are actively working to reverse actions that his predecessor took to undermine the ACA, also known as Obamacare.

All of the provisions are likely the type of Trump administration attacks on the ACA that would be revoked by the Biden administration, regardless of the outcome of the federal lawsuit.

On Jan. 28, Biden signed an executive order declaring that his administration's policy is to "protect and strengthen" the ACA. The order requires the secretary of the Department of Health and Human Services to review all existing regulations, orders and policies and to rescind those that are "inconsistent" with that pro-ACA goal.

A spokesperson for Health and Human Services did not immediately respond to questions from The Dispatch about the Biden administrations position on the provisions challenged in the lawsuit.

Biden's HHS nominee, California Attorney General Xavier Becerra, appeared poised to gain Senate confirmation after U.S. Sens. Joe Manchin, D-West Virginia, and Susan Collins, R-Maine, said Thursday that they plan to vote for Becerra after the nominee assured them that he could work across the aisle on issues. 

Regardless of how the Biden administration proceeds on the provisions, the court ruling is significant "because it proves that Trump did in fact try to sabotage the Affordable Care Act, as we claimed," said Meredith Tucker, spokeswoman for Columbus City Attorney Zach Klein.

"If Trump had won reelection, this ruling could have been the only thing that kept the ACA afloat," she said.

Klein, like Biden, is a Democrat.

The plaintiff cities — which also include Baltimore, Chicago and Philadelphia — alleged in the lawsuit that the Trump administration was seeking to illegally sabotage the ACA through the provisions, which were put in place by the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services, a branch of HHS.

Trump was a vocal opponent of the ACA, promising but failing in an effort to repeal the act during his presidency.

A spokeswoman for Democracy Forward, a nonprofit group that fights what it considers executive branch corruption and served as a representative for the cities in the lawsuit, said the January inauguration of Biden, an ACA proponent since the law was approved by Congress during his time as vice president to President Barack Obama, could be why the federal court ruling has received little media attention since it was issued March 4.

The filing of the lawsuit three years ago drew national attention.

Nevertheless, Democracy Forward's Charisma Troiano said the court ruling was important.

She said the court struck down two particularly harmful policies:

  • A provision under which the federal government "abandoned its responsibility to ensure that insurance plans offer adequate provider networks"
  • A provision that eliminated "standardized options — plans designed to make it easier for consumers to make informed choices."

The federal court ruling called the creation of those provisions "arbitrary and capricious."

As for the provisions that the court kept in place, Tucker said the city is eager to be a part of seeing whether they can be reversed by the new administration.

"Moving forward, we are hopeful that we can work with the Biden-Harris administration to find a resolution to this case as we are certainly aligned on the goal of providing Americans with quality, affordable health care," she said.

Columbus was the lead plaintiff in the lawsuit, which was filed in U.S. District Court in Maryland because the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services is headquartered there.