A Texas restaurant chain cannot join Oklahoma's challenge to the legality of "Obamacare," U.S. District Judge Ronald White ruled Monday.
The ruling in the Muskogee-based Eastern U.S. District Court may clear the way for resolution to the state's long-running effort to have the Affordable Care Act declared illegal.
GC Restaurants and related San Antonio companies are all in Texas, and their owners are Texans, White wrote in his ruling.
"The events giving rise to their claims occurred, are occurring and will occur in Texas, not in the Eastern District of Oklahoma," White said.
Further, the restaurant chain's employees -- who could be denied health care coverage if the effort were successful -- are also in Texas, he found.
As a result, White said it would be inappropriate to rule on the companies' allegations in Oklahoma.
White also pointed out the Texas company sought to join the case in December, almost two years after Oklahoma Attorney General Scott Pruitt filed his original complaint.
While Pruitt's suit sat idle for much of that time and took a very different course after the U.S. Supreme Court ruled the Affordable Care Act was largely constitutional in June 2012, White said the Texas effort to join the case came too late to be considered.
The restaurant companies are free to file their own challenge to the Affordable Care Act in Texas, but they can't be part of Oklahoma's challenge, White ruled.
White did not rule on the merits of Pruitt's challenge, which argues that the mandates and tax penalties in the federal health care law cannot be enforced in Oklahoma because of a nuance with the law itself.
The federal law requires large companies to provide health care coverage. If employees aren't offered coverage, they can seek federally subsidized insurance through a state health insurance exchange. If any employee for a company gets coverage through an exchange, the law requires tax penalties against the company -- a key element in financing the system.
But Pruitt argues that Oklahoma has not and will not establish a state exchange, so the tax penalties can't be levied here and the coverage mandate can't be enforced.
Federal attorneys have responded with several arguments, including that a federally facilitated exchange will be established in Oklahoma, and that is the legal equivalent of a state exchange.
White's ruling could indicate that the case is moving toward resolution. The issues have been fully briefed for weeks, and White has not scheduled oral arguments on any questions, suggesting he may be ready to rule on the basis of written filings.
With the resolution of the restaurant intervention issue, no additional issues remain unresolved.
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