Supreme Court Will Hear ACA Birth Control Coverage Case

Author: David B. Weisenfeld, XpertHR Legal Editor

January 21, 2020

The Supreme Court has agreed to decide a closely watched Affordable Care Act (ACA) dispute that could significantly limit female workers' access to free birth control. The consolidated cases involve the Trump administration's attempt to make it much easier for employers to avoid providing contraceptive coverage on religious or moral grounds.

The ACA mandates that birth control services be covered at no additional cost to employees. However, the Trump administration in October 2017 issued interim rules to permit for-profit companies to opt out of providing such coverage if they had religious or moral objections.

One year later, the administration published revised rules emphasizing that female employees could use alternatives such as family-planning clinics instead of seeking birth control services through the ACA.

But US District Judge Wendy Beetlestone, in Philadelphia, issued a nationwide injunction to block the new rules on the day they were slated to take effect. A 3rd Circuit Court of Appeals panel unanimously upheld that ruling. It noted that between 70,000 and 126,000 would lose contraceptive coverage if their employers could successfully claim the religious exemption.

The Supreme Court announced it would hear the administration's challenge to those rulings, with arguments likely to be heard in April and a decision expected before the end of the Court's term in June in Little Sisters of the Poor v. Pennsylvania and Trump v. Pennsylvania.

In their 2014 Hobby Lobby ruling, the justices held 5-4 that owners of privately held companies could bring objections to the health care law's contraception mandate on religious grounds. The Court noted, however, that its decision does not provide a shield for employers to engage in illegal discrimination "cloaked as a religious belief to avoid sanction."

The Trump administration's rules appear to go further than what was at issue in the Hobby Lobby case and led several states to claim they would have to bear much of the increased costs for female workers who lost coverage under the rules.