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Court gathers by phone, YouTube for short-term health plan case

Arguments made to the three-judge panel via a teleconference were streamed on YouTube that at times cut out

The Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit, based at the E. Barrett Prettyman United States Courthouse in Washington, heard oral arguments by phone Friday because of the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic.
The Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit, based at the E. Barrett Prettyman United States Courthouse in Washington, heard oral arguments by phone Friday because of the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic. (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call)

The U.S. Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit heard oral arguments by phone Friday in a case challenging the Trump administration’s short-term health plan rule, showcasing the difficulty of holding proceedings virtually during the COVID-19 pandemic.

Lawyers for seven health care groups that argue the rule violates the 2010 health care law and the Department of Justice lawyer defending the rule made their arguments to the three-judge panel via a teleconference streamed on YouTube that at times cut out, leaving counsel unable to hear a judge’s question. At another point, one judge was dropped from the call.

[Big Supreme Court opinions could come amid coronavirus outbreak]

“It’s kind of a mess,” Judge Thomas Griffith, a George W. Bush appointee, said as he rejoined the call after he said he was dropped for five or six minutes.

Still, the judges and attorneys pressed on. The arguments fell three days before the 10th anniversary Monday of President Barack Obama signing the 2010 health care law.

The Trump administration issued the short-term plan rule in 2018. It expanded how long someone can remain on a short-term, limited-duration insurance policy to just under a year, reversing an Obama-era rule that shortened short-term plans’ duration to three months. These insurance policies do not have to meet all of the health care law’s requirements and Democrats deride them as “junk plans.”

Last year, U.S. District Judge Richard Leon upheld the rule, which local health insurance plans and other health groups are seeking to overturn. 

Charles Rothfeld, the lawyer for the Association of Community Affiliated Plans and the other groups challenging the rule, argued Congress did not intend to regulate short-term plans, which existed before the 2010 law took effect, but Griffith seemed skeptical of that argument.

“You have a very heavy burden to show that Congress didn’t intend to do what Congress actually did,” Griffith said.

Department of Justice attorney Daniel Winick, who was questioned by Judge Judith Rodgers, argued that the rule is “entirely consistent” with the health care law’s design. He said the short-term plans open up an affordable insurance option for people who have limited opportunities for coverage. Many don’t qualify for Medicaid because their state did not expand eligibility but they also do not make enough money to qualify for federal marketplace subsidies.

“Congress was well aware it was retaining these alternative coverage arguments,” Winick said.

The judges did not give a timeframe for their decision.

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