WASHINGTON (AP) — President Barack Obama's health care law is snarled in another big legal battle, with two federal appeals courts issuing contradictory rulings on a key financing issue within hours of each other Tuesday.
But the split rulings don't necessarily mean another trip to the Supreme Court for the Affordable Care Act.
And White House spokesman Josh Earnest immediately announced that millions of consumers will keep getting financial aid for their premiums — billions of dollars in all — as the administration appeals the one adverse decision.
In that first ruling, a divided three-judge panel in Washington called into question the subsidies that help millions of low- and middle-income people afford their premiums, saying financial aid can be provided only in states that have set up their own insurance markets, or exchanges.
About 100 miles to the south in Richmond, Virginia, another appeals court panel unanimously came to the opposite conclusion, ruling that the Internal Revenue Service correctly interpreted the will of Congress when it issued regulations allowing health insurance tax credits for consumers in all 50 states.
Split appeals court decisions are a classic route to the Supreme Court. But in this situation, it's far from clear what will happen because the administration still has a legal card to play.
Since the Washington case was decided by a three-judge panel, the administration will ask the full 11-member appeals court to hear the case. The full U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit has seven judges appointed by Democratic presidents, including four by Obama.
If the full court comes out in favor of the administration, the prospect of Supreme Court involvement would be greatly diminished. On the other hand, if the full Washington court stays out of it or, after a hearing, essentially leaves the panel's decision in place, then the Supreme Court would almost certainly weigh in.
Democratic appointees also constitute a majority of the full appeals court in Richmond.
Both cases are part of a long-running political and legal campaign to overturn Obama's signature domestic legislation by Republicans and other opponents of the law.
In the Washington case, Halbig v. Burwell, a group of small business owners argued that the law authorizes subsidies only for people who buy insurance through markets established by the states — not by the federal government.
That's no mere technical distinction, since the federal government is running the markets, or exchanges, in 36 states.
The Washington court agreed with that objection, in a 2-1 decision that could mean premium increases for more than half the 8 million Americans who have purchased taxpayer-subsidized private insurance under the law.
Two judges appointed by Republican presidents voted against the administration's interpretation of the law while one appointed by a Democratic president dissented.
The majority opinion concluded that the law, as written, "unambiguously" restricts subsides to consumers in exchanges established by states. That would invalidate an IRS regulation that tried to sort out confusing wording in the law by concluding that Congress intended for consumers in all 50 states to have subsidized coverage.
"At least until states that wish to can set up exchanges, our ruling will likely have significant consequences both for the millions of individuals receiving tax credits through federal exchanges and for health insurance markets more broadly," wrote Judge Thomas Griffith.
"But, high as those stakes are, the principle of legislative supremacy that guides us is higher still," he added.
Justice Department spokeswoman Emily Pierce said the Washington court got it wrong.
"We believe that this decision is incorrect, inconsistent with congressional intent ... and at odds with the goal of the law: to make health care affordable no matter where people live," Pierce said in a statement.
In Richmond, the three-judge 4th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals panel was unanimous in its decision upholding the law's financing. That court said the IRS did a reasonable job of interpreting legal language that is "ambiguous and subject to multiple interpretations."
In a concurring opinion, Judge Andre Davis used pizza as an analogy. He wondered what would happen if he were to ask a friend for ham and pepperoni pizza from Pizza Hut, adding that Domino's would be fine as well. If the friend came back with Domino's, that would fulfill his request, he wrote.
The seemingly arcane issue could be crucial to the success of the health law because most states have been unable or unwilling to set up their own exchanges. The inaction stems in many instances from opposition by Republican governors to the Affordable Care Act.
It all revolves around four words in the 900-page law, which says tax credits to help pay premiums are available to people who enroll through an exchange "established by the state."
The challengers to the law say a literal reading of that language invalidates the IRS subsidy to people in the federal exchanges.
The Obama administration and congressional and state legislative supporters of the Affordable Care Act say the challengers are failing to consider the words of the statute in its entirety.
The Supreme Court has considered several challenges to the health care law, most recently ruling that some private companies don't have to cover birth control if it offends religious scruples. The biggest ruling came in 2012, when a divided court let stand the law's core requirement that most Americans carry health insurance or face fines.
MARIETTA, Ga. (AP) — Barry Loudermilk has been chosen by Republican voters to take GOP Rep. Phil Gingrey's seat in Congress.
Loudermilk, a state senator from Cassville, defeated former congressman Bob Barr in a GOP runoff Tuesday for Gingrey's House seat in the 11th District, which covers part of Atlanta's northern suburbs.
No Democrats ran for the seat, essentially giving Loudermilk a free pass to Washington in the fall.
Barr, who helped lead the 1998 impeachment of President Bill Clinton, was denied a congressional comeback more than a decade after he became a casualty of a redistricting that forced him into a losing primary race against a fellow GOP incumbent, then-Rep. John Linder. He ran for president as a Libertarian in 2008.
Loudermilk ran for Congress after a decade in the state Legislature.
TUSCALOOSA, Ala. (AP) — A friend of the metro Atlanta father who left his son in a hot SUV says he's devastated about what has happened to his friend's family and doesn't know what to think about the way he's been described by police.
Ben McRea of Tuscaloosa, Alabama told Atlanta's WSB-TV Tuesday that he and Justin Ross Harris have known each other since high school and he was a groomsman at Harris' wedding in 2006.
Police have said Harris's 22-month-old son, Cooper, died after being left inside a parked SUV while Harris was at work. Harris has told investigators he forgot to drop the boy off at daycare.
McRea says he hopes police are wrong about Harris, and that their description of him so far doesn't match the man he knew.
SEOUL, South Korea (AP) — South Korean police said Tuesday that a badly decomposed body found surrounded by liquor bottles in a field last month was that of a fugitive billionaire businessman blamed for April's ferry disaster that killed more than 300 people.
The body was found in a field of apricot trees in the southern city of Suncheon on June 12, local police station chief Wu Hyung-ho told a news conference. He said DNA and fingerprint samples taken from the body matched those of the wanted man, Yoo Byung-eun.
Wu said the body had decayed beyond recognition when it was found and a more thorough examination was needed to find how and when he died. An initial investigation showed there was no evidence that he was murdered, he said.
The dead man was wearing a pair of expensive shoes and a luxurious Italian brand Loro Piana winter parka. Also found near him were three empty Korean liquor bottles, a cloth bag and a magnifying glass, Wu said.
The state-run National Forensic Service took about 40 days to run the DNA tests. Suncheon police officers said the lab will conduct additional tests to find the cause and timing of Yoo's death.
Police and prosecutors have been seeking Yoo since May and had offered a $500,000 reward for tips about him. They believe Yoo was the owner of the ferry and that his alleged corruption may have contributed to its sinking.
The sinking, one of South Korea's deadliest disasters in decades, has caused an outpouring of national grief and renewed scrutiny about public safety. About 100 days after the disaster, 294 bodies have been retrieved but 10 people are still missing.
Prosecutors said Monday that 139 people had been arrested over the ferry sinking, including all 15 crew members tasked with navigating the ship, and employees at Chonghaejin, a company that operated the ferry, over suspicions of improper stowage and overloading of cargo. The crew members face charges of negligence and failing to perform their duties to rescue passengers, with four of them facing homicide charges.
Yoo faced allegations of tax evasion, embezzlement and professional negligence. Officials suspect the sinking may have happened because Chonghaejin illicitly funneled profits to his family and failed to spend enough money on safety and personnel.
Yoo, head of the now-defunct predecessor of Chonghaejin, allegedly still controlled the company through a complex web of holding companies in which his children and close associates are large shareholders. The government offered a $100,000 bounty for Yoo's eldest son, and one of his daughters was arrested in France in May.
The predecessor company went bankrupt in the late 1990s but Yoo's family continued to operate ferry businesses under the names of other companies, including one that eventually became Chonghaejin.
Yoo is also a member of a church that critics and defectors say is a cult. Yoo's church made headlines in 1987 when 32 people, who critics suspect were church members, were found dead in the attic of a factory near Seoul in what authorities said was a collective murder-suicide pact. Church members have denied involvement.
Yoo was investigated over the deaths after a probe into the dead people's financial transactions showed some of their money was funneled to him. He was cleared of suspicions that he was behind the suicides because of a lack of evidence, but was convicted on a separate fraud charge.
Associated Press writer Jung-yoon Choi contributed to this report.
WASHINGTON (AP) — Scientists have linked more than 100 spots in our DNA to the risk of developing schizophrenia, casting light on the mystery of what makes the disease tick.
Such work could eventually point to new treatments, although they are many years away. Already, the new results provide the first hard genetic evidence to bolster a theory connecting the immune system to the disease.
More than 100 researchers from around the world collaborated in the biggest-ever genomic mapping of schizophrenia, for which scientists had previously uncovered only about a couple of dozen risk-related genes.
The study included the genetic codes of more than 150,000 people — nearly 37,000 of them diagnosed with the disease. Researchers found 108 genetic markers for risk of getting the disease, 83 of them not previously reported. And scientists say there are still likely more to be found.
"It's a genetic revelation; schizophrenia has been a mystery," said study co-author Steve McCarroll, director of genetics for the Broad Institute of MIT and Harvard. "Results like this give you things to work on. It takes it out of the zone of guesses about which genes are relevant."
The results were released Monday by the journal Nature. It takes large studies to ferret out genes related to schizophrenia risk because each gene generally has only a very weak effect.
Schizophrenia is a debilitating mental disorder that makes it hard to tell the difference between what is real and not real, and affects about one out of every 100 people. Studies estimate that it costs $60 billion in the U.S. each year. Scientists have long known that genes play a part, and this work further confirms that.
The results are a "big step" toward finding drug therapies, said study lead author Dr. Michael O'Donovan, deputy director of the MRC Centre for Neuropsychiatric Genetics and Genomics at Cardiff University School of Medicine in Wales. While 108 genetic markers are a lot, the study authors say they tend to implicate a narrower group of biological functions, giving some but not too many hints for scientists to pursue.
"It's a map or maze. It's telling you were to start, it's not telling you where to end," O'Donovan said.
Scientists who didn't work on the study were excited by the possibilities it opens up.
"This makes me more optimistic than I was yesterday," said American Psychiatric Association president Dr. Paul Summergrad, psychiatrist-in-chief at Tufts Medical Center.
Dr. Thomas Insel, director of the National Institute of Mental Health, which funded the work, said the study provides useful hints about the biology of the disease, especially the link to the immune system.
"This really is a big step forward," Insel said. "It's not an answer; it's a step forward toward an answer."
Scientists already knew that families with autoimmune disorders tend to have higher rates of schizophrenia, and there's been a link between certain viral infections in the second trimester of pregnancy and higher rates of schizophrenia in offspring, Insel said.
With the new work, "now it's very clear that there's something going in the immune system" with schizophrenia, said Eric Lander, founding director of the Broad Institute, which was heavily involved in the research.
O'Donovan figures most people have at least 20 to 30 genes that nudge them toward developing schizophrenia, probably many more, but don't have the disorder itself. That's because it may still take an environmental or emotional trigger to bring on the illness.
Insel was especially excited about one study finding, that people with the most genetic markers were 15 times more likely to have schizophrenia than those with the fewest markers. He said he hoped that scientists can eventually develop a genetic test to identify young people at high risk for the disease, so they can be offered early treatment.
But O'Donovan and McCarroll said the work is way too preliminary to even hint at that. Even the people with elevated risk of schizophrenia according to the test were far more likely to be free of the disorder than to have it.
As for developing treatments, "I don't want to pretend than anybody's going to make drugs easily," Lander said.
But he said the study of schizophrenia genetics is now to the point that "we can actually turn the lights on and see what's going on."
Copyright 2014 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.
WASHINGTON (AP) — Sen. Dianne Feinstein recalls turning on her television and seeing a young Chinese girl crying before a judge, without even an interpreter to help her after surviving a harrowing journey to the U.S.
That was the genesis of a law six years ago that is now at the center of an immigration crisis at the nation's Southern border. More than 57,000 youths, mostly from Central America, have crossed into the U.S. illegally since October. Fewer than 2,000 of them have been sent back.
Immigration advocates and many Democrats insist on preserving what they describe as important protections in the 2008 law for unaccompanied youths who flee their home countries or are smuggled to the U.S.
Most Republicans and a few Democrats want to change the law to address circumstances far different from six years ago, when no more than 8,000 kids arrived at the border each year without their parents.
"The 2008 law creates a process that made sense when you're talking about a limited number of children, the victims of sex trafficking. It doesn't make sense when you talk about 50,000 unaccompanied minors," said Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C. "The 2008 law wasn't designed to deal with this situation."
Sen. Robert Menendez, D-N.J., countered, "The best interest of the child would be what the law says: Hold them in a safe and clean shelter, rather than returning them to face possible death."
The dispute has held up congressional action on President Barack Obama's $3.7 billion emergency spending request for more immigration judges, detention facilities and other resources for the border. Prospects for a compromise are dim, and Congress may leave for its annual summer recess in two weeks without doing anything to deal with the unfolding crisis.
Feinstein's measure was made part of the William Wilberforce Trafficking Victims Protection Reauthorization Act of 2008, named after an 18th century British abolitionist. It passed Congress with no controversy and was signed by former President George W. Bush without a lot of fanfare.
It codified court-ordered protections for unaccompanied young migrants, and modified a distinction in U.S. policy between the treatment of young Mexican migrants and those from other nations.
Under the law, kids from Mexico and Canada who arrive here without their parents or other guardians must go through an initial screening by Border Patrol agents, who can turn them around quickly unless they demonstrate a fear of persecution back home or meet certain other limited criteria.
Advocates say those screenings are inadequate, and a report by the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees this summer said Border Patrol agents make the presumption that Mexican kids don't have protection needs, rather than taking the necessary steps to rule that out.
Youths from other countries, however, are automatically put into deportation proceedings and get an opportunity to make their case before a judge. In the meantime they're supposed to be handed over to the Health and Human Services Department within 72 hours, and from there released into the least restrictive setting that's in their best interest — usually the care of family members, who themselves may be in the country illegally.
There, they may wait for years as their case makes its way through the nation's immigration court system, which has a backlog of more than 350,000 cases. Many never will show up when their day in court does arrive.
In practice they have achieved what they set out to obtain: a new life in America.
"Very, very few are actually being sent back," Sen. Jeff Flake, R-Ariz., said at a recent Senate hearing on the issue. "The practical effect of our policy is that once a child is placed with a sponsor, it's extremely unlikely that they're going to be deported."
Those circumstances have led Republicans to insist on changes to the 2008 law to allow Central American youths to be treated the same as those from Mexico, so they can be sent home quickly, broadcasting a message to Honduras, El Salvador and Guatemala that new arrivals will not stay. Homeland Security Secretary Jeh Johnson has said he supports such a change.
On the other side are immigration advocates, the Catholic Church and a growing number of Democratic lawmakers, who say many of the youths are fleeing vicious gang violence.
"We're going to be sacrificing the safety of refugee children in the effort to send a message to the home countries," said Wendy Young, president of Kids in Need of Defense, who was an aide to the late Sen. Edward M. Kennedy, D-Mass., at the time of the law's passage.
Feinstein, Menendez and others also have begun to argue that that the law as written allows the administration flexibility to deal with the current circumstances, because it contains a provision for "exceptional circumstances."
"The process I don't think is the problem," Feinstein said. "The problem is what's at the home of these children."
But such arguments have gotten little traction with Republicans, who appear ready to insist that the law must change in order for them to sign off on money to address the crisis.
"I don't know how Congress can send more money to the border to begin to mitigate the problem if you don't do something about the '08 law that's being abused," House Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio, told reporters last week. "And it is being abused."