WASHINGTON, DC (June 30, 2014)—In a 5-4 decision, the Supreme Court ruled today that closely held for-profit employers can refuse on religious grounds to cover contraceptive services, part of the preventive services benefit guaranteed under the Affordable Care Act. This decision could bar access to covered benefits for some women, according to experts at Milken Institute School of Public Health (Milken Institute SPH) at the George Washington University.
The case involved the question of religious freedom and the contraceptive coverage requirement—a provision in the Affordable Care Act that calls for guaranteed coverage by private insurers and employer-sponsored health plans of all FDA-approved contraceptive methods without cost-sharing. The Supreme Court ruled in favor of Hobby Lobby (a nationwide arts-and-crafts company) and the Conestoga Wood Specialties Corporation (a furniture maker), who claimed they should be exempt from providing contraceptive coverage to their employees due to their religious beliefs.
The Supreme Court ruling represents the first time that the Court has held that in the name of religion, employers can curtail federally guaranteed rights, says Sara Rosenbaum, JD, the Harold and Jane Hirsh Professor of Health Law and Policy at Milken Institute SPH. “By creating a religious shield for health benefit rights guaranteed under law, the decision moves the issue of employee health benefits offered by private companies into uncharted waters,” Rosenbaum says. At the same time, she notes, the majority appears to recognize both the government’s interest in securing these rights and its power to fashion a reasonable accommodation that will ensure that rights are protected.
Although the ruling identifies the possibility of extending the current “accommodation” allowed for religiously affiliated non-profit organizations to for-profit companies, the decision could create a burden on female employees, since it singles out contraception for different treatment, adds Susan F. Wood, the executive director of the Jacobs Institute of Women’s Health at Milken Institute SPH. “Women should not have to bear the consequences, both personal and financial, of this decision,” she said, noting that in interpreting this ruling, the first priority should be to ensure that women employees still get access to insurance coverage of contraception. “Women pay more out-of-pocket expenses than men, particularly for contraception, and some of the most effective and cost-saving methods of contraception have large up-front costs,” Wood says.
To schedule an interview about the Supreme Court ruling with Sara Rosenbaum or Susan Wood, please contact Kathy Fackelmann, the director of media relations at Milken Institute SPH at firstname.lastname@example.org or 202-994-8354.
Susan F. Wood, PhD, associate professor of health policy and executive director of the Jacobs Institute of Women’s Health at the Milken Institute SPH. Professor Wood can talk about the impact of the Supreme Court ruling on women and their families. Her background includes a previous position as Assistant Commissioner for Women’s Health at the U.S. Food and Drug Administration, a job she held until 2005 when she resigned on principle over the delays in approving emergency over-the-counter contraception. Recently, Wood and the Jacobs Institute joined an amicus brief filed by four major medical groups arguing against the religious exemption sought by the for-profit companies in this case.
Sara Rosenbaum, JD, professor of health policy and the Harold and Jane Hirsh Professor of Health Law and Policy. Professor Rosenbaum is a legal expert on the Affordable Care Act. With the Guttmacher Institute, Professor Rosenbaum filed an amicus brief with the Supreme Court that sides with the Obama Administration on the case. In that brief, the amici argue that that contraception plays such a crucial role in the lives and health of women and their children and families that the government has a compelling interest in overriding any religious shield that might be found to exist in order to ensure women coverage through their plans. About Milken Institute School of Public Health at the George Washington University: Established in July 1997 as the School of Public Health and Health Services, Milken Institute School of Public Health is the only school of public health in the nation’s capital. Today, nearly 1,400 students from almost every U.S. state and more than 43 countries pursue undergraduate, graduate and doctoral-level degrees in public health. The school also offers an online Master of Public Health, MPH@GW, and an online Executive Master of Health Administration, MHA@GW, which allow students to pursue their degree from anywhere in the world.