Mary Pat Dwyer, WLP Law Intern
Two federal district court judges ruled recently on claims regarding the Affordable Care Act (ACA) provision which requires that employers providing health insurance to their employees cover reproductive health services, including birth control, emergency contraception, and other procedures.
On Tuesday, July 17, Judge Warren Urbom of the District of Nebraska dismissed a suit brought by several states, Catholic groups, and individual plaintiffs challenging the constitutionality of the provision. The groups argued that the First Amendment’s protection of freedom of association gave them the right to deny their employees coverage for these essential services. The states claimed that the groups and others like them would cease to provide insurance for their employees rather than comply with the law, which in turn would increase the number of Medicaid applicants and adversely affect state budgets.
Judge Urbom found that the plaintiffs did not have standing to pursue their claim that the mandate violated the first amendment for two reasons. First, the federal government has delayed enforcement of the provision until August 2013. Because of this, the groups are not facing any imminent requirement to comply with the law, and thus cannot show the “direct and immediate harm” that plaintiffs must show in order to have the courts consider their claims. Second, the states claims that they would face increases in Medicaid costs were based purely on “layers of conjecture,” and had no factual grounding. Furthermore, Judge Urbom pointed out that the Department of Health and Human Services is currently considering revising the definition of religious employers under the ACA. Because of the potential for revision, none of the plaintiffs could show that they would ever be impacted by the provision.
On Friday, July 27, Judge John Kane of the District of Colorado reached a drastically different conclusion when he granted an injunction prohibiting the federal government from enforcing the provision against Hercules Industries Inc., a private corporation. Judge Kane found that for the Catholic plaintiffs, who serve as co-owners and board of directors of a company that manufactures HVAC equipment, the obligation to comply with the law threatened their right to exercise their religious beliefs under the Religious Freedom Restoration Act (RFRA). Katherine Sebelius, Secretary of the Department of Health and Human Services, expressed disappointment with Judge Kane’s decision, but also stated that she is “confident that as this case moves through the courts, the policy that most health insurance plans cover contraception will be upheld.” Sebelius also reaffirmed the administration’s position that “health decisions should be between women and their doctors, not their employers.”
Twenty-four similar lawsuits claiming that the requirement violates the First Amendment are still pending in courts across the country. These suits undermine the security of women’s health care, and it is crucial that the courts recognize the grave importance of comprehensive health care access. As WLP highlighted in Through the Lens of Equality: Eliminating Sex Bias to Improve the Health of Pennsylvania’s Women, women who face restricted access to contraceptive care suffer serious health risks as a result. Women who are unable to effectively and safely plan their pregnancies are more likely to experience pregnancy complications. For women who have preexisting conditions, such as diabetes, coronary artery disease, or arthritis, unintended pregnancies can be life threatening. Additionally, children born of unplanned pregnancies, face increased risks of premature birth, low birth, poor nutrition, and infant mortality.
Neither judge ruled on the constitutionality of the provision. However, as we have previously explained, the federal contraceptive coverage rule does not violate the First Amendment because it is a neutral law that does not target a particular faith and applies to everyone equally. It is constitutional.