Obamacare notches legal victory in Missouri

This post has been corrected. See note at bottom for details.

WASHINGTON – Supporters of President Obama’s health law scored a legal victory in Missouri on Thursday as a federal judge blocked the state from enforcing new rules limiting the ability of community organizations to help consumers sign up for coverage under the law.

Missouri is among many Republican-leaning states that have put restrictions on these groups, including a requirement that they get licenses before they can help with the enrollment process. Proponents of the restrictions maintain that they protect consumers.

The Affordable Care Act provides federal funding to groups around the country to educate consumers about health plans being offered this year on new online insurance marketplaces created by the law.

Supporters of the law have complained that additional requirements imposed by states, such as Missouri, are unnecessary and designed primarily to impede enrollment in health coverage. Many of the law’s critics have urged people not to sign up for insurance.

The Missouri case was brought by eight plaintiffs, including St. Louis Effort for AIDS and Planned Parenthood of the St. Louis Region and Southwest Missouri. Both have received federal funding to help with enrollment.

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U.S. District Judge Ortrie D. Smith said the restrictions were problematic for these two groups because Missouri, like 35 other states, has asked the federal government to operate its marketplace. (The remaining states are running their own marketplaces, or exchanges, as they are sometimes called.)

“It seems obvious these additional requirements obstruct the federal government’s operation of the federal facilitated exchange,” wrote Smith, who was appointed to the bench by President Clinton.

“Having made the choice to leave the operation of the exchange to the federal government, Missouri cannot choose to impose additional requirements or limitations on the exchanges,” he concluded.

A spokeswoman for Missouri’s attorney general said the office was reviewing the ruling.

Smith’s preliminary injunction in the case -- St. Louis Effort for AIDS, et al vs. Huff -- does not dismiss it entirely. Nor does Smith’s ruling apply to other states that have imposed similar restrictions on community organizations, although it may help fuel challenges to these laws.

In another advance for the health law, Utah Gov. Gary R. Herbert, a Republican, announced Thursday that he favors expanding Medicaid to the state’s poor residents under the law. He joins a growing number of Republican state leaders who have embraced Medicaid expansion, a key pillar of the health law.

[For the Record, Jan. 23, 3:05 p.m. An earlier version of this post referred to the governor of Utah as Bob Herbert. He is Gary R. Herbert.]

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