A federal judge ruled that Tennessee unlawfully left thousands of people in limbo when they applied for Medicaid, after the state decided to rely entirely on the federal health exchange for Medicaid enrollments and failed to address application backlogs.
The lawsuit, representing plaintiffs that included newborns forgoing early-life check-ups and a woman with high blood pressure who nearly died because she avoided hospitals while waiting for her Medicaid coverage, was brought by three non-profits: the Southern Poverty Law Center, the Tennessee Justice Center and the National Health Law Program.
It's the latest legal ruling in the aftermath of the messy Obamacare rollout, with states and the federal government feuding over both the politics of President Obama’s signature legislation and the implementation of its massive infrastructure.
U.S. District Court Judge Todd Campbell ruled the while Obamacare may have changed certain Medicaid eligibility rules; the state couldn’t foist enrollment responsibility entirely on the federal government.
The state had complained that Medicaid backlogs were the fault of the federal government and that they couldn’t fix them, but the state was able to quickly enroll the plaintiffs, the judge pointed out, once they sued and the state was trying to end the lawsuit.
“The irreparable harm suffered by the Plaintiff Class outweighs any burden imposed on the State through injunctive relief, especially given the injunctive relief fashioned by the Court simply requires the State to comply with the obligations imposed upon it by law as a participant in the Medicaid program,” the judge wrote in the injunction.
Sam Brooke, an attorney on the case from the Southern Poverty Law Center, told msnbc the ruling was a "significant victory for all the people of Tennessee."
While the state won’t say how many people are in the Medicaid application backlog, he estimates it’s in the tens of thousands.
Many states asked the federal government to run their determination process on Medicaid, Brooke added, but Tennessee made it nearly impossible for people who had trouble with that system to get Medicaid any other way.
“This isn’t rocket science, this is something they’ve been doing for years, the only thing that’s changed is a slight change in what counts as income,” he said.
The judge also declared it a class action suit, which means that it affects everyone who is currently waiting to hear about their Medicaid eligibility.
A spokesman for the governor's office told msnbc, "the administration is committed to operationalizing the judge's order at this time."