Federal Courts Block President Trump's Roll Back of Contraceptive Coverage

Author: David B. Weisenfeld, XpertHR Legal Editor

December 22, 2017

Two federal courts in the last week have blocked the Trump administration's attempt to make it easier for certain employers that cite moral or religious objections to contraception to refuse to provide coverage for certain birth control methods.

US District Judge Haywood Gilliam Jr. of the Northern District of California granted a nationwide preliminary injunction yesterday to put the administration's October rules - allowing businesses or nonprofits to obtain exemptions from the Affordable Care Act's contraceptive coverage provision - on hold. Attorneys General in California, Delaware, Maryland, New York and Virginia had brought the lawsuit, calling the administration's rule "an unlawful overreach."

Judge Gilliam agreed with the states that the administration issued its rules without proper notice and comment. He wrote that, for a substantial number of women, the rules transformed contraceptive coverage "from a legal entitlement to an essentially gratuitous benefit wholly subject to an employer's discretion." In contrast, he said there would be no harm in returning to the state of affairs before the Trump administration's rules.

A federal judge in the Eastern District of Pennsylvania issued a similar injunction in upholding a challenge by the Pennsylvania Attorney General, US District Judge Wendy Beetlestone said the administration's rules permit various entities to opt out of providing contraceptive coverage that under the Affordable Care Act (ACA) is supposedly mandatory.

Judge Beetlestone explained, "This means that boards of closely held corporations or their executives can decide to deny contraceptive coverage for the corporation's women employees not just for religious reasons but also for any… moral reason they can articulate." But, she added, who decides whether the moral reason is sincere is not spelled out anywhere in the Trump administration's rules.

Rules issued by Department of Health and Human Services during the Obama administration required employer-provided health insurance plans to cover all FDA-approved contraception, as well as sterilization procedures. However, the rules allowed religious nonprofits to opt out of providing contraceptive coverage directly by sending a form to the plan's health insurer or third-party administrator.

The Trump administration's October directive not only granted an exemption to any privately-held companies and organizations that have moral objections to birth control, but also eliminated the requirement that exempted organizations submit a form asking that a third party provide birth control coverage in their stead.

With the two federal court rulings, the Obama-era ACA contraceptive coverage rules remain in place.