In a swipe at President Obama’s signature health care legislation, Gov. Chris Christie of New Jersey vetoed on Thursday an online marketplace that the Legislature created to help residents and small businesses buy health insurance.
The Affordable Care Act, the federal law passed in 2010, requires most Americans to have health insurance and mandates states to have health care benefits exchanges to help them buy it. With the Supreme Court debating whether the health care law is constitutional, Mr. Christie said in his veto message that the exchange, approved in March, was “premature” and could impose “unnecessary obligations upon the state’s citizens.”
“Indeed, the very constitutionality of the Affordable Care Act is cloaked in uncertainty, as both the individual mandate to procure health insurance as well as the jurisdictional mandate to establish an exchange may not survive scrutiny by the Supreme Court,” he wrote.
“Because it is not known whether the Affordable Care Act will remain, in whole or in part, it would be imprudent for New Jersey now to create an exchange before these critical threshold issues are decided with finality by the court,” he added.
Mr. Christie was the second governor to veto such a law, following Gov. Susana Martinez of New Mexico, who is also a Republican. In New York, Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo, a Democrat, took the opposite tack last month: after the Legislature declined to create an exchange, he established one by executive order.
Ultimately, Mr. Christie’s veto is largely symbolic. The federal law requires states to offer health care exchanges by January 2014, but provides that Washington will step in to administer them in states that fail to make progress by January 2013. In either case, the state pays to set up the health care exchange, but states that fail to create the exchanges lose the ability to oversee them.
Democratic lawmakers accused the governor of playing politics with the needs of the most vulnerable residents.
“It’s clear from his actions that he is more focused on winning praise from national Republican pundits than protecting New Jersey families’ access to health care,” said Assemblyman Louis Greenwald of Camden, the leader of the Democratic majority in the State Assembly.
The Democrats warned that the governor’s veto would leave the state scrambling to comply with the federal law and could jeopardize future grant money. New Jersey had already received two federal grants, totaling $8.7 million, to prepare the exchange.
Assemblyman Herb Conaway of Burlington, a doctor who was the lead sponsor of the legislation in the chamber, said the governor was sending a message that “he doesn’t care” about the 1.3 million state residents without health insurance.
“By vetoing this bill, Governor Christie has failed New Jersey’s uninsured residents, hurt New Jersey’s chances of fully benefiting from federal health care reform and ignored the need to provide relief to hospitals for uncompensated care,” Dr. Conaway, a Democrat, said.
Democrats in the Legislature had billed the exchange as one-stop shopping for people or businesses seeking health insurance, allowing consumers to compare the benefits and the costs of participating plans.
The Web site it proposed would have also allowed people to apply for tax credits or other subsidies toward the cost of insurance.
In his veto message, the governor said he was concerned about the potential costs of the exchange.
The bill passed by the Legislature would have established a Medicaid-like plan for people with incomes between 133 percent and 200 percent of the federal poverty level. Mr. Christie argued that it was unclear whether there would be federal financing to support such a plan.
In addition, he argued that the mechanism the bill set up to approve plans would limit the number of companies that could participate, which he said would both reduce options and increase costs.
“In all, with basic issues regarding the future of the Affordable Care Act unresolved, it is impossible to know whether this legislation best suits the interests and needs of all New Jerseyans who will be required to finance these policy choices,” the governor wrote.
Mr. Christie said that if the federal law was upheld, he would oversee the state’s compliance “in a responsible and cost-effective manner.”
But while the governor cited the cost of putting the exchange into effect, Democrats in Washington and Trenton argued that the bigger cost was allowing so many residents to remain uninsured.
“New Jersey taxpayers are on the hook every time someone without coverage shows up in an emergency room, whether it’s for life-threatening treatment or routine medical care,” United States Senator Robert Menendez said.