U.S. judge questions states seeking to restore Obamacare payments

SAN FRANCISCO (Reuters) - A U.S. judge on Monday appeared skeptical toward a request from several states that want him to order the administration of Republican President Donald Trump to continue payments to health insurers under Obamacare.

At a hearing in San Francisco federal court, U.S. District Judge Vince Chhabria said he aimed to issue a ruling on Tuesday.

The Trump administration earlier this month terminated the payments, which help cover out-of-pocket medical expenses for low-income Americans, as part of several moves to dismantle the signature healthcare law of his Democratic predecessor, Barack Obama.

Trump had threatened to cut off the subsidies for months, prompting health insurers such as Anthem Inc, Humana Inc, UnitedHealth Group Inc and Aetna Inc to raise premiums or exit insurance markets.

Democratic attorneys general from 18 states and the District of Columbia sued the federal government and asked for an immediate order halting Trump’s move while the case is being litigated and argued that terminating the payments harmed customers by raising insurance rates.

But Chhabria on Monday suggested that California and other states had anticipated Trump’s move and worked with insurers to make sure most consumers would not be harmed. That weakens the case for a court order forcing the payments, Chhabria said.

“Why should I be ordering the administration to make these payments in the next few months while we get the case adjudicated?” Chhabria asked.

Since cutting off the payments, Trump has alternately supported, and dismissed, an effort by Republican and Democratic senators that would reinstate the subsidies for two years until a broader replacement to the 2010 Affordable Care Act, commonly known as Obamacare, can be negotiated.

While Democrats accused Trump of sabotaging Obamacare, the president argued that the subsidies made insurance companies “rich.”

In a court filing on Friday, the U.S. Department of Justice pointed to a prior ruling from a Washington, D.C. federal court that said Congress had never appropriated the money for the subsidies. An appeal of that ruling is currently on hold.

Either side could appeal Chhabria’s ruling to the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, which is weighted with Democratic-appointed judges.

From there, any further appeal would go to the U.S. Supreme Court.

Reporting by Dan Levine; Additional reporting by Yasmeen Abutaleb in Washington; Editing by Cynthia Osterman and Lisa Shumaker