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Utah leaders react to the uncertain fate of the Affordable Care Act

Utahns are watching closely as the future of the Affordable Care Act is considered by a three-judge panel from the 5th Circuit U.S. Court of Appeals. The judges heard oral arguments on the constitutionality of the act in New Orleans on Tuesday. Adobe Stock

SALT LAKE CITY — Utahns are watching closely as the future of the Affordable Care Act is considered by three judges on the other side of the country.

A three-judge panel, two Republican-appointed and one Democrat-appointed, from the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 5th Circuit in New Orleans, heard oral arguments on the constitutionality of the Affordable Care Act, also known as Obamacare, on Tuesday.

In February 2018, Utah Attorney General Sean Reyes joined a 20-state coalition lawsuit against the federal government challenging the lawfulness of the health care law and calling it unconstitutional, after Congress repealed a provision that people without health insurance had to pay a fine.

The lawsuit has also been backed by President Donald Trump.

An appeal was filed by a California-led group of 20 Democratic-leading states and the U.S. House of Representatives after a Texas-based federal judge, U.S. District Court Judge Reed O'Connor, ruled in favor of the Republican-led states that declared the Affordable Care Act unconstitutional last December.

House attorneys faced "intense and seemingly skeptical questions" from two judges, the Associated Press reports.

"Our nation needs to focus its attention on finding real solutions to our broken health care system, to provide access to quality, affordable health care for all Americans," according to a statement from the Utah Attorney General's Office. "The reality is, that's simply not happening under the unconstitutional and unsustainable Affordable Care Act."

Lauren Simpson, policy director for Alliance for a Better Utah, a government advocacy and watchdog organization, said it's too soon to tell where the judges will lean.

"This is something that's going to have really serious consequences for Utah. It directly contradicts what we know that Utahns want," Simpson said.

Last November, Utahns voted in support of Proposition 3 to expand Medicaid coverage in the state. But in February, Gov. Gary Herbert signed a replacement to limit Medicaid expansion.

"We fully expect Texas v. U.S. will eventually be resolved in the United States Supreme Court, where the ACA's impermissible federal overreach will be exposed," the Utah Attorney General's Office statement read.

In its statement, the Utah Attorney General's Office said it looks forward to assisting Utah's executive and legislative leaders "to prepare for this outcome and begin … a new system of health care that safeguards preexisting conditions and assures coverage doesn't lapse while the legal case is resolved."

The Utah Attorney General's Office said executive and legislative leaders are "united" in this effort.

Simpson found it "concerning" that Reyes said he has the backing from both executive and legislative leaders.

"The Utah Legislature is elected to represent the people," she said. "That raises some serious questions if this is true. Who are these lawmakers that Reyes is referring to who support his efforts to dismantle the entire ACA?"

She called the Affordable Care Act something that "benefits everyone in the community."

"A strong community is a healthy community, so it's in everyone's best interest to make sure that everyone has the healthcare that they need," she said. "Health care is essential."

The judges did not issue a ruling at the end of the hearing in New Orleans; it is unclear when they'll rule.

"We hope the judges will strike down the lawsuit and rule against Reyes and the other attorneys general who are part of this repeal effort," she said.

The AP reports that "the outcome will affect protections for people with preexisting conditions, Medicaid expansions covering roughly 12 million people, and subsidies that help about 10 million others afford health insurance."