President Obama's controversial health care law got a major boost Wednesday when the first ruling by a federal appeals court affirmed that Congress can require Americans to have minimum insurance coverage.
A conservative law center had challenged the measure, arguing on behalf of plaintiffs who said potentially being required to buy insurance or face penalties was subjecting them to financial hardship. They warned that the law was too broad and could lead to more federal mandates.
The Thomas More Law Center, based in Ann Arbor, Mich., argued before the panel that the law was unconstitutional and that Congress overstepped its powers.
The government countered that the measure was needed for the overall goal of reducing health care costs and reforms such as protecting people with pre-existing conditions. It said the coverage mandate will help keep the costs of changes from being shifted to households and providers.
The three-judge 6th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals panel delivered a long opinion with disagreement on some issues.
"Congress had a rational basis for concluding that the minimum coverage provision is essential to the Affordable Care Act's larger reforms to the national markets in health care delivery and health insurance," Judge Boyce F. Martin, appointed by former President Jimmy Carter, wrote for the majority in the 2-1 ruling.
A George W. Bush appointee concurred; a Ronald Reagan appointee who is a U.S. district judge in Columbus sitting on the panel disagreed. Judges are selected for panels through random draw.
An attorney for Thomas More said the center expects to appeal. It could ask for the full circuit court to review the case or go on to the U.S. Supreme Court.
More than 30 legal challenges have been filed over the health care overhaul, some focusing on different issues.
The White House celebrated the ruling on its blog.
"Today the Affordable Care Act, and the millions of Americans and small businesses benefitting from it scored another victory when the 6th Circuit Court of Appeals ruled that the law is constitutional," wrote Stephanie Cutter, an assistant to the president and deputy senior advisor.
"We're gratified by today's ruling, which came from judges appointed by Democratic and Republican presidents who agreed that the law's individual responsibility provision (sometimes called the minimum coverage provision) is constitutional," she wrote.
Supporters of the law also took a victory lap.
"Today's decision upholding the constitutionality of the Affordable Care Act's expansion of health coverage to tens of millions of people is a victory of common sense," said Ron Pollack, executive director of Families USA.
"Every step of the way the health care debate has been polluted by partisan politics," said Ethan Rome, executive director of Health Care for America Now (HCAN). "Today's decision, made by judges appointed by both Republican and Democratic presidents, is immune to that criticism. The court ruled on the merits, and it's as simple as that."
The Justice Department also cheered the ruling, saying it will continue to "vigorously defend the health care reform statue in any litigation challenging it."
"Throughout history, there have been similar challenges to other landmark legislation such as the Social Security Act, the Civil Rights Act, and the Voting Rights Act, and all of those challenges failed," Justice spokeswoman Tracy Schmaler said in a statement. "We believe these challenges to health reform will also fail."
The Associated Press contributed to this report.