The Arizona Supreme Court late Friday refused to block the state from scaling back its health care program for the poor next week.
In a brief order, the justices rejected the petition by several public interest law firms to forbid the Arizona Health Care Cost Containment System from changing eligibility standards effective this coming Friday, a move that eventually would leave about 150,000 who otherwise are eligible without care. Vice Chief Justice Andrew Hurwitz, who signed the order, gave no reason for the ruling.
But attorney Tim Hogan from the Arizona Center for Law in the Public Interest said he and others opposed to the cuts will make one more last-ditch effort on Monday to convince a lower court judge to issue an injunction.
Hogan and the other lawyers had taken the unusual step of making their legal plea directly to the high court. But there is no requirement for the justices to accept such a petition.
That, however, leaves challengers free to take the case through the normal process, which means filing suit in Maricopa County Superior Court. And Hogan noted that Friday's Supreme Court order does not preclude him from asking -- or a trial judge from granting -- an injunction.
At issue is a plan by Gov. Jan Brewer to stop providing care for childless adults even though a 2000 voter-approved initiative requires the state to cover anyone below the federal poverty level, a figure that now stands at about $18,500 a year for a family of three. Also gone would be coverage for adults making at least 75 percent of the poverty level, though their children would continue to receive care.
Hogan and others argue the move is illegal, contending that lawmakers and the governor are legally powerless to countermand the initiative.
Anyone already enrolled, though, would be allowed to remain in the program.
State officials counter that the lack of available cash means the voter mandate does not apply.
There was no way prior to this coming Friday, when the change takes effect, to get a court to examine the merits of that argument. So challengers sought an immediate injunction to keep the program as is while judges review the issue.
Hogan said he does not believe that the refusal of the Supreme Court to block the change will undermine the bid to get an injunction from a lower court judge.
One key issue that courts examine when being asked to issue an injunction is who will be hurt.
Hogan, in his own petition to the court, estimated that 17,000 people who are otherwise eligible would be denied care in the first month alone. Ultimately, about 150,000 people would be turned away within a year.
The governor and Attorney General Tom Horne, however, argue that issuing an injunction would hurt the state overall.
They note that the change is designed to save $282.4 million in the new budget year which also begins this coming Friday. Keeping eligibility where it is, even briefly beyond Friday, means lawmakers would be forced to start cutting other areas of the state budget, meaning reductions in other programs.
While foes of the change are going to superior court on Monday, Brewer, in a prepared statement, was already claiming victory because of the Supreme Court action.
"The court's rejection of an injunction in this case will save the state tens of millions of dollars in the next few months alone,'' the governor said.
Brewer also defended the decision to scale back the program, saying the state had to make "serious and difficult budget decisions'' during the recession.
"But they are necessary in order to balance the budget while maintaining core services for all Arizona citizens,'' she said, calling the ruling "the best decision for the state.''
Friday's decision by the high court to stay out of the fight is likely only temporary. Whichever side loses at trial court is virtually certain to appeal.