MIAMI A judge on Thursday put on hold his ruling that President Barack Obama's healthcare overhaul was unconstitutional, allowing the White House to continue implementing the landmark legislation for now.
But U.S. District Judge Roger Vinson failed to dispel widespread uncertainty about the fate of the highly-politicized healthcare reform law. He gave the Obama administration seven days to ask an appeals court to quickly review his January 31 ruling and said the law could be declared void if it failed to meet the deadline.
The administration had said it would appeal the Florida judge's previous ruling. It had warned that the "sweeping nature" of the judgment posed a risk of "serious harm to many Americans" benefiting from the new law, the cornerstone of Obama's domestic agenda in his first two years in office.
It also said it could hamper efforts to combat fraud and waste in Medicare and Medicaid, the massive federal programs that provide healthcare to the elderly and poor, and "impose staggering administrative burdens" on the government and its fiscal intermediaries.
"We appreciate the court's recognition of the enormous disruption that would have resulted if implementation of the Affordable Care Act was abruptly halted," Tracy Schmaler, a Justice Department spokeswoman, said in a statement after Vinson's ruling on Thursday.
"We welcome the court's granting of a stay to allow the current programs and consumer protections, including tax credits to small business and millions of dollars in federal grants to help states with healthcare costs, to continue pending our appeal in the Eleventh Circuit," she said.
In his January ruling, Vinson sided with the governors and attorneys general from 26 U.S. states, almost all Republicans, in striking down the healthcare law. He ruled its so-called individual mandate went too far in requiring that Americans start buying health insurance in 2014 or pay a penalty.
Republicans opposed the overhaul, which includes provisions allowing young adults to remain on their parents' insurance and prevents insurers from denying coverage for pre-existing medical conditions, using the issue to make big gains in the November 2 elections.
While Vinson, who was appointed to the bench by Republican President Ronald Reagan, and a federal judge in Virginia have ruled against the law, judges in several other states have dismissed challenges.
Vinson is alone in having ruled that the entire Affordable Care Act should be struck down.
In his ruling on Thursday, Vinson agreed that halting implementation of the law would be "extremely disruptive and cause significant uncertainty."
He also said the case was expected to reach the U.S. Supreme Court, where either side could prevail and the court "may eventually be split on the issue as well."
The most important thing, he said, was that it be resolved as quickly as possible.
"The Act seeks to comprehensively reform and regulate more than one-sixth of the national economy. It does so via several hundred statutory provisions and thousands of regulations that put myriad obligations and responsibilities on individuals, employers, and the states. It has generated considerable uncertainty while the constitutionality of the Act is being litigated in the courts," Vinson said.
"The sooner this issue is finally decided by the Supreme Court, the better off the entire nation will be."
(Additional reporting by Jeremy Pelofsky in Washington; Editing by Paul Simao)