News Politics

What’s At Stake in the Court’s Affordable Care Act Decision

Robin Marty

With a new law on the books that says customers cannot be turned down for insurance coverage regardless of pre-existing conditions, the 2012 election could determine the fate of millions of Americans with illnesses and disabilities.

The U.S. Supreme Court is expected to soon provide a ruling on the challenge by 26 states who claim the Affordable Care Act’s (ACA) requirement that every American either purchase health insurance or pay a fee is a unconstitutional.  While most wait to see if the court will uphold, strike down part or reject all of President Barack Obama’s key health reform bill, Obama himself seems to be planning contingencies already.

Bloomberg News reports that Obama has begun telling potential donors at fundraising events that there is a chance that the bill will have to be revisited in his second term in office, depending on the court’s decision. 

As he previewed his agenda for donors at a May 14 fundraiser, Obama said he may be forced to try to revise parts of his health-care plan, depending on how the court rules later this month, said one activist, who requested anonymity to discuss the president’s comments. Guests at the $35,800-a-plate dinner in the Manhattan apartment of Blackstone Group LP (BX) President Tony James were asked to check their smart phones and BlackBerries at the door.

The president has made similar remarks, usually in response to questions, at other fundraising events since the Supreme Court heard arguments in the case during the last week of March, according to two other activists, who also requested anonymity.

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The admission, if true, adds yet another piece to the myriad of issues that could be decided after the 2012 election, when what limited effects the ACA has already had since its implementation could be immediately rolled back.

Republican nominee Mitt Romney has also begun to focus on health care, releasing a web ad that talks about his wife Ann’s struggle with Multiple Sclerosis and his vow to support her in any way he could during her illness. The video, which also requests donations to the National Multiple Sclerosis Society, is being touted by media as an attempt to show his “softer side” and “humanize” him.

However, as writer Erin Kotecki Vest comments, it makes for good television, but not such great policy. Vest, who also is under treatment for an auto-immune disorder, writes:

Unfortunately it doesn’t say a word about what ‘President’ Romney would do for people like Ann and I. Not one. Single. Word.

What we do know is candidate Mitt would repeal the Affordable Care Act– the groundbreaking legislation that would make sure my and Ann’s disease would not mean we’d lose our insurance coverage, or making sure there is an end to lifetime limits of benefits.

Vest notes that the very group that the Romney’s are soliciting donations on behalf of is a supporter of the Affordable Care Act due to the advantages it creates for those who have the disease, a fact that Romney leaves out of any discussion of his wife’s illness.

The Supreme Court is expected to deliver its ruling on the individual mandate by the end of June.

Analysis Law and Policy

What Monday’s Supreme Court Decision Means in the Fight for Abortion Rights

Jessica Mason Pieklo

Monday's decision striking two provisions of Texas' HB 2 doesn't just threaten similar laws nationwide; it could be the basis for finally stemming the onslaught of anti-science abortion restrictions in the states.

Read more of our coverage of Whole Woman’s Health v. Hellerstedt here.

Abortion rights advocates have insisted, since the beginning of the fight over targeted regulation of abortion providers (TRAP) laws, that despite anti-choice lawmakers’ claims to the contrary, the evidence proved these restrictions harmed rather than advanced patient safety. On Monday, the U.S. Supreme Court finally listened.

Monday’s decision in Whole Woman’s Health v. Hellerstedtwhich struck as unconstitutional Texas’ requirements in HB 2 that all doctors performing abortions in the state have admitting privileges at a nearby hospital and that all clinics meet the same requirements as stand-alone surgical centers—is not just a win for advocates and patients in Texas. It produced an opinion that has the potential to turn back the seemingly endless wave of restrictions from the states and to reinforce abortion as a fundamental right.

First things first. Whole Woman’s Health is a data-heavy opinion, and there is probably no better justice to pen one than Justice Stephen Breyer. The man seems to live for statistical analysis. He may offer up rambling hypotheticals during oral arguments, but his written opinions are more often than not grounded in data.

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The reason this matters is that both the conservatives on the Roberts Court and their supporters in the Fifth Circuit have tried their damnedest for years to sidestep piles and piles of facts. Such as the fact that in 2013, the year Gov. Rick Perry (R) signed HB 2 into law, the number of Texans who traveled out of state to have an abortion increased to 681, a jump Rewire reported as amounting to more than the previous four years combined. Conservatives also tried to explain away the fact that prior to the implementation of HB 2, there were 41 facilities providing abortion services in the state; by the end of 2013, 16 of those facilities had either stopped providing abortion services or closed altogether. And they tried to manipulate the legal standard governing how courts review abortion restrictions to do so. Justice Breyer, his liberal colleagues, and even noted abortion rights skeptic Justice Anthony Kennedy finally put a stop to all that nonsense. Here’s how.

When upholding the Texas abortion restrictions, the Fifth Circuit relied heavily on a line of reasoning in Gonzales v. Carhartthe 2007 Supreme Court case that upheld the so-called federal partial-birth abortion act. As part of that decision, the Court ruled that when there is a question of scientific or medical uncertainty, legislators could essentially pick a side they agree with and draft laws accordingly. We’ve all witnessed what happened next. Anti-choice lawmakers in the states went bananas concocting abortion restrictions with not much more than a hand-wave that those restrictions were grounded in science and designed to advance patient safety. The Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals took that ruling one step further in the fight over HB 2 and ruled that once legislators announce their justification for an abortion restriction, there was little, if anything, the federal courts could do to second-guess that reasoning.

Not so, the Court ruled Monday. “The statement [by the Fifth Circuit] that legislatures, and not courts, must resolve questions of medical uncertainty is also inconsistent with this Court’s case law,” Breyer wrote. “Instead, the Court, when determining the constitutionality of laws regulating abortion procedures, has placed considerable weight upon evidence and argument presented in judicial proceedings” holding that the “Court retains an independent constitutional duty to review factual findings where constitutional rights are at stake.”

Justice Breyer put that last part in italics just to drive home that yes, when it comes to the fundamental right to abortion, the federal courts are not simply rubber stamps for state lawmakers.

With that point made clear, Breyer then laid out—basically in a listicle—the number of places the Fifth Circuit got its review of the data wrong as to the effect of admitting privileges on the availability of reproductive care. It’s an impressive list that goes on for pages and includes “[a] collection of at least five peer-reviewed studies on abortion complications in the first trimester, showing that the highest rate of major complications including those complications requiring hospital admission—was less than one-quarter of 1%” as “[e]xpert testimony to the effect that complications rarely require hospital admission, much less immediate transfer to a hospital from an outpatient clinic.”

There’s more, but Breyer summed it up nicely: “In our view, the record contains sufficient evidence that the admitting-privileges requirement led to the closure of half of Texas’ clinics, or thereabouts. Those closures meant fewer doctors, longer waiting times, and increased crowding.”

Moving on to those claims made by attorneys for the State of Texas that the ACS provisions in particular advanced patient safety, Justice Breyer dropped some more data bombs. “Nationwide, childbirth is 14 times more likely than abortion to result in death, but Texas law allows a midwife to oversee childbirth in the patient’s own home,” Breyer wrote.

Colonoscopy, a procedure that typically takes place outside a hospital (or surgical center) setting, has a mortality rate 10 times higher than an abortion. The mortality rate for liposuction, another outpatient procedure, is 28 times higher than the mortality rate for abortion. Medical treatment after an incomplete miscarriage often involves a procedure identical to that involved in a nonmedical abortion, but it often takes place outside a hospital or surgical center. And Texas partly or wholly grandfathers (or waives in whole or in part the surgical-center requirement for) about two-thirds of the facilities to which the surgical-center standards apply. But it neither grandfathers nor provides waivers for any of the facilities that perform abortions.

How good does it feel to hear the Supreme Court call shenanigans on lawmakers who insist the best way to protect the health and safety of patients is by making comprehensive reproductive health care impossible to access? Probably as good as it feels to hear the Supreme Court shut down in the same opinion all the nonsense from abortion rights opponents claiming rogue provider Dr. Kermit Gosnell is proof positive that all abortion providers are dangerous predators that require the kind of regulation advanced in HB 2. “Gosnell’s behavior was terribly wrong. But there is no reason to believe that an extra layer of regulation would have affected that behavior,” Breyer wrote. “Determined wrongdoers, already ignoring existing statutes and safety measures, are unlikely to be convinced to adopt safe practices by a new overlay of regulations. Regardless, Gosnell’s deplorable crimes could escape detection only because his facility went uninspected for more than 15 years.”

Breyer went on: “Pre-existing Texas law already contained numerous detailed regulations covering abortion facilities, including a requirement that facilities be inspected at least annually. The record contains nothing to suggest that H. B. 2 would be more effective than pre-existing Texas law at deterring wrongdoers like Gosnell from criminal behavior.”

And: scene.

Immediately, Monday’s decision means that similar TRAP restrictions in other Fifth Circuit states like Louisiana are likely to be found unconstitutional. In states like Missouri or Kansas, it’s too soon to tell how the decision will affect those kinds of laws, but advocates are no doubt looking into that issue right now given the opening Monday’s decision creates.

And importantly, it makes it much more difficult for anti-abortion lawmakers to advance additional restrictions like “dismemberment bans” without being able to scientifically prove those laws actually advance patient care. These are laws that would effectively criminalize surgical abortions pre-viabilty, and are anti-abortion lawmakers’ latest attempts to cut off access to abortion while claiming to advance patient safety.

This is why Whole Woman’s Health v. Hellerstedt has the potential to reach far beyond TRAP laws in the fight for comprehensive reproductive health care. Finally, we’ve got a Supreme Court decision that demands facts over rhetoric and data over belief, and doesn’t fall into the “difficult decision that people disagree on” false equivalence. Monday’s decision is a clear, data-driven defense of the importance of access to comprehensive reproductive health care and an affirmation of abortion as a fundamental right. And that kind of defense has been a long time coming.

Commentary Law and Policy

Here’s What You Need to Know About Your Birth Control Access Post-Supreme Court Ruling

Bridgette Dunlap

Yes, the Zubik v. Burwell case challenged the Affordable Care Act's contraceptive coverage mandate. But that shouldn't stop you from getting your reproductive health needs met—without a co-payment.

In May, the Supreme Court issued a sort of non-decision in Zubik v. Burwell, the consolidated case challenging the Affordable Care Act’s mandate that employers provide contraceptive coverage. The ruling leaves some very important legal questions unanswered, but it is imperative that criticism of the Court for “punting” or leaving women in “limbo” not obscure the practical reality: that the vast majority of people with insurance are currently entitled to contraception without a co-payment—that includes people, for the most part, who work for religiously affiliated organizations.

Two years ago, hyperbole in response to the Court’s decision in Burwell v. Hobby Lobby—that, for example, the Court had ruled your boss can block your birth control—led too many people to believe the contraceptive coverage requirement was struck down. It wasn’t. The Zubik decision provides a good opportunity to make sure that is understood.

If people think they don’t have birth control coverage, they won’t use it. And if they don’t know what coverage is legally required, they won’t know when their plans are not in compliance with the law and overcharging them for contraceptives or other covered services, perhaps unintentionally. The point of the contraceptive coverage rule is to make it as easy as possible to access contraceptives—studies show seemingly small obstacles prevent consistent use of the most effective contraceptives. Eliminating financial barriers isn’t enough if informational ones undermine the goal.

The most important thing to know is that most health plans are currently required to cover reproductive health services without a co-payment, including:

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  • One version of every kind of FDA-approved contraception—that is, only the generic or the brand-name version of the contraceptive could be covered, but at least one must be. So you shouldn’t be paying a co-payment whether you use the pill, the patch, the shot, or want long-acting reversible contraception (LARC) like an IUD, which is more expensive, but most effective.
  • Screening for HIV and high-risk strains of HPV
  • An annual well-woman visit
  • Breastfeeding counseling and supplies like pumps

There are exceptions, but most plans should be covering these services without a co-payment. Don’t assume that because you work for Hobby Lobby or Notre Dame—or any other religiously affiliated employer—that you don’t currently have coverage.

The original contraceptive coverage rule had an “exemption” for church-type groups (on the somewhat dubious theory that such groups primarily employ individuals who would share their employers’ objection to contraception). When other kinds of organizations, which had religious affiliations but didn’t primarily employ individuals of that same religion, objected to providing contraceptive coverage, the Obama administration came up with a plan to accommodate them while still making sure women get contraceptive coverage.

This “accommodation” is a workaround that transfers the responsibility to provide contraceptive coverage from the employer to the insurance company. After the employer fills out a form noting it objects to providing contraception, the insurance company must reach out to the employee and provide separate coverage that the objecting organization doesn’t pay for or arrange.

This accommodation was originally available only to nonprofit organizations. But dozens of for-profits, like Hobby Lobby, sued under the Religious Freedom Restoration Act (RFRA)—arguing that their owners were religious people whose beliefs were also burdened by the company having to provide coverage.

The Hobby Lobby decision did not say your boss’s religious belief trumps your right to a quality health plan. What the Court did was point to the existence of the accommodation for nonprofits as proof that the government could achieve its goals of ensuring coverage of contraception through a workaround already in place to give greater protection to objectors. Basically, the Court told the government to give the for-profits the same treatment as the nonprofits.

The Hobby Lobby decision states explicitly that the effect of this on women should be “precisely zero.” The Obama administration subsequently amended the contraceptive regulations, making coverage available to employees of companies like Hobby Lobby available through the accommodation. Hobby Lobby added some headaches for administrators and patients, but it did not eliminate the contraceptive coverage rule.

Next, however, the nonprofits went on to argue to the Supreme Court and the public that the accommodation the Court had seemed to bless in Hobby Lobby also violated RFRA—because having to fill out a form, which notified the government that they objected to contraceptive coverage and identifying their insurers, would substantially burden their religious beliefs.

Following oral arguments in Zubik, the eight-member Supreme Court issued a highly unusual order: It asked the parties to respond to its proposed modification of the accommodation, in which the government would not require objecting nonprofits to self-certify that they oppose contraception nor to identify their insurers. The government would take an organization’s decision to contract for a health plan that does not cover contraception to be notice of a religious objection and go ahead with requiring the insurer to provide it instead.

The petitioners’ response to the Court’s proposed solution was “Yes, but…” They said the Court’s plan would be fine so long as the employee had to opt into the coverage, use a separate insurance card, and jump through various other hoops—defeating the goal of providing “seamless” contraceptive coverage through the accommodation.

When the Court issued its decision in Zubik, it ignored the “but.” It characterized the parties as being in agreement and sent the cases back to the lower courts to work out the compromise.

The Court told the government it could consider itself on notice of the petitioners’ objections and move forward with getting separate contraceptive coverage to the petitioners’ employees, through the accommodation process, but without the self-certification form. How the government will change the accommodation process, and whether it will satisfy the petitioners, are open questions. The case could end up back at the Supreme Court if the petitioners won’t compromise and one of the lower courts rules for them again. But for prospective patients, the main takeaway is that the Court ruled the government can move forward now with requiring petitioners’ insurers to provide the coverage that the petitioners won’t.

So—if your plan isn’t grandfathered, and you don’t work for a church or an organization that has sued the government, your insurance should be covering birth control without a co-payment. (If your plan is grandfathered and your employer makes a change to that plan, then those formerly grandfathered plans would be subject to the same contraceptive coverage requirements.) If you do work for one of the nonprofit petitioners, the government should be making contraceptive coverage available even before the litigation is resolved. And in some cases, employees of the petitioners already have coverage. Notre Dame, for example, initially accepted the accommodation before being pressured by off-campus contraception opponents to sue, so its insurer is currently providing Notre Dame students and employees coverage.

Don’t despair about the Supreme Court’s gutting access to contraception. Assume that you have coverage. The National Women’s Law Center has great resources here for finding out if your plan is required to cover contraception and how to address it with your insurance plan if it isn’t in compliance, and a hotline to call if you need help. The fact that equitable coverage of women’s health care is the new status quo is a very big deal that can be lost in the news about the unprecedented litigation campaign to block access to birth control and attacks on Obamacare more generally. Seriously, tell your friends.