MONDAY, Jan. 31 (HealthDay News) -- A federal judge in Florida ruled Monday that the controversial health-care reform law passed by Congress last spring is unconstitutional because it requires people to purchase health insurance or pay a penalty.

"I must reluctantly conclude that Congress exceeded the bounds of its authority in passing the act with the individual mandate," wrote U.S. District Judge Roger Vinson, becoming the second federal judge to rule against the law signed by President Barack Obama in March, USA Today reported.

The law's constitutionality is expected to ultimately be decided by the U.S. Supreme Court.

The Florida court case marked the largest challenge so far to the health-reform law, including governors and attorneys general from 26 states opposed to the legislation.

Two other federal courts have upheld the constitutionality of the law -- a centerpiece of President Barack Obama's first two years in office and the first significant overhaul of the nation's health-care system in decades. It also pitted Democrats, who backed the reform for the most part, against Republicans, who opposed it.

Vinson had indicated in the past that he would likely rule that the so-called individual mandate overstepped constitutional limits on federal authority. "The power that the individual mandate seeks to harness is simply without prior precedent," Vinson wrote in an earlier opinion in October, the Wall Street Journal reported.

On Dec. 13, a federal judge in Virginia sided with that state's attorney general, who contended that the individual insurance mandate -- to take effect in 2014 -- violated the Constitution, making it the first successful challenge to the legislation.

The dispute over the constitutionality of the insurance mandate is similar to arguments in about two dozen health-care reform lawsuits that have been filed across the country, according to Politico.com.

What made the Florida case different was that the lawsuit had been filed on behalf of more than 20 states.

The federal government contends that Congress was within its legal rights when it passed Obama's signature legislative goal in March. The U.S. Justice Department said the insurance mandate falls within the scope of the federal government's authority under the Commerce Clause.

White House officials have said in the past that a negative ruling would not affect the law's implementation because its major provisions don't take effect until 2014.

By 2019, the law, unless changed, will expand health insurance access to 94 percent of non-elderly Americans.

Florida's former attorney general, Bill McCollum, a Republican, filed the lawsuit minutes after Obama signed the 10-year, $938 billion health-care reform bill into law on March 23, 2010. He chose a court in Pensacola, one of Florida's most conservative cities, the Associated Press reported.

Other states that joined the lawsuit were: Alabama, Alaska, Arizona, Colorado, Georgia, Indiana, Idaho, Iowa, Kansas, Louisiana, Maine, Michigan, Mississippi, Nebraska, Nevada, North Dakota, Ohio, Pennsylvania, South Carolina, South Dakota, Texas, Utah, Washington, Wisconsin and Wyoming, the AP said.

More information

To learn more about the impact of the Affordable Care Act, visit this U.S. Department of Health and Human Services Web site.