Justice Department won't defend Affordable Care Act provisions in court

Attorney General Jeff Sessions, in a Thursday letter to House Speaker Paul Ryan, said while the administration has traditionally defended the constitutionality of such provisions, he has decided "this is a rare care where the proper course is to forgo defense".

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 US law, according to University of Michigan Law Professor Nicholas Bagley.

A brief filed Thursday by the Justice Department asks a federal court to end protections for people with pre-existing health conditions, many of whom had been unable to buy individual insurance before the 2010 law known as Obamacare took effect. Previously, insurers could deny or restrict applicants' coverage based on their medical history, or carriers could charge higher premiums or offer only skimpy benefits to those who are or were sick.

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The chances for that argument succeeding are viewed with deep skepticism by legal experts, in part because Congress itself indicated that the rest of ObamaCare could still stand without the mandate when it moved to repeal the tax penalty past year.

In a brief filed in a Texas federal court, the Justice Department said the ACA's individual mandate - which required most Americans to carry health insurance - can no longer be interpreted as a tax "because it will raise no revenue as Congress has eliminated the monetary penalty". 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 filing is part of a lawsuit brought by the state of Texas and a coalition of other Republican-led states that are challenging Obamacare's constitutionally.

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Shortly before the government's court filing, three career lawyers at the Justice Department withdrew from the case and were replaced by two political appointees, according to court filings.

"The question is, what does this do to insurance markets now?" said Jost.

Americans are very divided over the Affordable Care Act, but one piece that many support is the law's protections for those with pre-existing conditions.

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