A federal judge granted a preliminary injunction Thursday against Missouri's law requiring a state license to serve as a navigator to help consumers sign up for coverage through the new health insurance marketplace.
U.S. District Judge Ortrie D. Smith's ruling also denied the state's motion to dismiss the lawsuit. It wasn't clear if the state would appeal. Missouri attorney general's office spokeswoman Nanci Gonder said in a written statement that the office was reviewing the ruling.
"We're counting this as a huge victory for ourselves but most importantly for the low-income people of Missouri, the uninsured of Missouri," said Abbi Coursolle, a Los Angeles attorney for social service agencies, doctors and others who filed the lawsuit.
A new state law requires insurance counselors to receive at least 30 hours of training and pay a small fee in order to help online shoppers negotiate the federal insurance exchange. It also compels insurance "navigators" to refer individuals who bought their health insurance from a licensed agent back to those agents when considering private coverage.
Missouri's Republican-led Legislature opted against setting up a state-run exchange.
Missouri is among 17 states with federally run marketplaces that enacted legislation imposing requirements on navigators, said Katie Keith, a former research professor at Georgetown University, who has been tracking the legislation and who provided information without pay to the plaintiffs' attorneys.
"The ruling would certainly encourage navigator entities in other states to challenge these laws," Keith said. The judge's ruling said since Missouri decided not to run its own exchange it can't impose additional requirements or limitations, Keith said, and the same argument could be made in other states.
The suit, filed Nov. 25, contended that the licensing requirement conflicts with the federal Affordable Care Act and places social services organizations in an "untenable position," restricting their constitutional rights to free speech.
Ortrie, in the ruling, wrote that the licensing requirement "constitutes an impermissible obstacle."
Plaintiffs included the St. Louis Effort for AIDS; Planned Parenthood of the St. Louis Region and Southwest Missouri; Missouri Jobs for Justice; former Democratic state lawmaker Jeanette Mott Oxford, who is now executive director of the Missouri Association of Social Welfare; a physician in Independence; a retired doctor in St. Louis County; and a Kansas City community organizer.
Supporters in Missouri say the licensing law was sought by insurance agents and brokers worried about fraud.
Associated Press writer Carla K. Johnson contributed from Chicago.