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Physicians’ View of Supreme Court on an Issue of Public Health

Curator: Larry H. Bernstein, MD, FCAP

  • Where has the reason gone?

https://pharmaceuticalintelligence.com/2014/07/07/where-has-reason-gone-2/

  • Justice Ginsberg written dissent – Third Part

https://pharmaceuticalintelligence.com/2014/07/08/justice-ginsberg-written-dissent/

  • The physicians’ view of Supreme Court on an issue of public health

https://pharmaceuticalintelligence.com/2014/07/08/the-physicians-view-of-supreme-court-on-an-issue-of-public-health/

  •  Reason in Hobby Lobby

https://pharmaceuticalintelligence.com/2014/07/08/reason-in-hobby-lobby/

 

Physicians’ View of Supreme Court on an Issue of Public Health

The physicians are under considerable stress.  They have a minimum of 8 years of post graduate university education to practice as a generalist or  in a medical, pediatric, gynecological or surgical related specialty.  A significant loss is incurred in the cost of loans for education to many. A significant sacrifice is made in time for family.  A primary obligation is incurred toward the wellbeing of the patient, and the community that has to be respected and protected by civil law.

 

Supreme Court Issues Hobby Lobby Decision

By Joyce Frieden, News Editor, MedPage Today  Published: Jun 30, 2014

The Supreme Court has struck down the Affordable Care Act requirement that employers must include no-cost contraceptive coverage in employee health insurance plans. The 5-4 decision decision issued today in the Hobby Lobby case (Burwell v. Hobby Lobby Stores, Inc.) follows conflicting appellate court rulings in cases involving businesses that objected to the ACA’s birth control requirement on religious grounds. The businesses said the ACA stepped on their religious freedoms.

The 2010 health law mandates that all health plans provide preventive services — including birth control — free of cost-sharing. But some corporations — most notably arts-and-crafts giant Hobby Lobby and its sister company Mardel, a Christian bookstore chain — sued the Department of Health and Human Services to be exempted from having to comply with the mandate. In its 5-4 decision, written by Justice Samuel Alito, the Court ruled that the mandate violates the Religious Freedom Restoration Act of 1993, “which prohibits the ‘Government [from] substantially burden[ing] a person’s exercise of religion’” unless it shows that doing so is “in furtherance of a compelling governmental interest” and “is the least restrictive means” of doing do. The decision summary also notes that the Department of Health and Human Serivces (HHS) “argues that the companies cannot sue because they are for-profit corporations, and that the owners cannot sue because the regulations apply only to the companies, but that would leave merchants with a difficult choice:

  • give up the right to seek judicial protection of their religious liberty or forgo the benefits of operating as corporations.

RFRA’s text shows that Congress designed the statute to provide very broad protection for religious liberty and did not intend to put merchants to such a choice.” Donna Harrison, MD, executive director of the American Association of Pro-Life Obstetricians & Gynecologists (AAPLOG), noted that Hobby Lobby was in particular objecting to very specific contraceptives — the emergency contraceptive Ella and intrauterine devices, which she noted are capable of killing embryos, either by preventing their implantation or killing them after they have been implanted.

Art Caplan, PhD, director of the medical ethics division at the NYU Langone Medical Center in New York City, oberved “decision could have a very negative impact” on women’s ability to obtain contraception,  and “it could affect many women even if only a small percentage of companies followed suit.” “The other problem,” he told MedPage Today in a video interview, “is that if your employer says ‘I’m not covering contraception,’ you may decide to go with methods that don’t involve pharmaceutical control, or you may rely on something like emergency contraception” — decisions that could lead to more abortions, which would be

  • an ironic outcome since many employers’ objections to contraception revolve around their objections to abortion.

Harrison, of AAPLOG, noted that the decision should be reassuring to physicians who object to prescribing particular forms of contraception that they see as abortifacients, since insurers may have been considering excluding such doctors from their provider networks if the mandate had been upheld. “This will help incentivize insurers to not exclude ‘conscientious doctors’ from their networks,” she said.

More Physician Groups Weigh In

Many of the other physician groups issuing statements today expressed disappointment in the ruling.

“Allowing for-profit employers to exclude coverage for contraception is itself deeply concerning because of the demonstrated adverse impact it will have on women’s health,” David Fleming, MD, president of the American College of Physicians, said in a statement. “And, “the ruling clearly does not preclude for-profit employers from challenging such mandates (vaccinations), or the courts from granting further coverage exemptions.”

Rebecca Sokol, MD, president of the American Society for Reproductive Medicine in Washington, said in a statement that her organization “profoundly disagrees” with the decision. “Allowing an employer to impose their beliefs about reproduction on their staff is simply wrong, particularly when those beliefs are

  • so clearly misinformed on the scientific and medical facts,” Sokol said.

“In no other field of medicine do we allow employers to substitute their judgment for that of patients and physicians; it should not be allowed just because the subject matter is reproduction.”

Between Women and Their Physicians

Lin-Fan Wang, MD, reproductive health advocacy fellow at Physicians for Reproductive Health in New York City, said in a video interview that

  • “decisions about contraception should really be made between a woman and her doctor, and not by her employer.”

Wang recounted the story of one of her own patients, a woman who had recently had a baby and then went back to work, and was having trouble remembering to take her birth control pills. “She chose one of the intrauterine devices … because it was one of the most effective forms of contraception and she didn’t have to think about it every day,” she said. “Luckily her insurance plan covered the cost of this very expensive form of contraception, but

  • under the ruling today, patients like [her] might not be able to choose that method

and she may end up having to choose a method that is hard for her to take or she’s not happy with.” Reproductive rights groups also expressed their concerns. Bebe Anderson, JD, director of the U.S. Legal Program at the Center for Reproductive Rights in New York City, called the decision “an affront to women of this country.”

“As Justice [Ruth Bader] Ginsburg recognized in her dissent, this decision makes it very difficult for women to get some of the best long-acting reversible forms of contraception,” Anderson told MedPage Today in a video interview. “For example, IUDs are as expensive as 1 month’s pay for someone working at minimum wage.”

Cecile Richards, president of the Planned Parenthood Action Fund, called the ruling “stunning.” On a call with reporters she said it was no coincidence that the majority opinion was decided by five male justices. “It is endlessly frustrating for women that decisions about their healthcare are being made by people who never need to use birth control, and it is no coincidence that all three women on the court signed today’s dissent,” Richards said. On the same call, Marcia Greenberger, co-president of the National Women’s Law Center, said the decision was “a bitter pill for women to swallow …These [plaintiffs] and other closely held companies

  • will now have license to harm their female employees in the name of the company’s religion, and
  • ignore the moral and practical considerations of women themselves.”

Other Implications

Several commenters noted that, although the majority opinion specifically states that this ruling does not apply to religious objections to other healthcare benefits such as vaccinations and blood transfusions, this opens up the way for plaintiffs to sue about those as well. “Regardless of what they said, they’ve opened Pandora’s box and set a precedent,” said Ilyse Hogue, president of NARAL Pro-Choice America. The Tenth Circuit Court of Appeals in Denver ruled in June 2013 that

  • Hobby Lobby should be given the opportunity to show its religious beliefs would be violated by either complying with the law or being forced to pay large fines.

Hobby Lobby faced penalties amounting to $1.3 million a day starting in the summer of 2013 if it didn’t provide FDA-approved contraceptive methods in its self-insured health plans, which cover 13,000 employees. But a court issued an injunction in July that prevented the penalty from taking effect.

A rule from HHS finalized last summer exempted churches and other nonprofit religious organizations that object to contraceptive coverage. But private businesses such as Hobby Lobby weren’t exempt. UPDATE: This article, originally published on June 30 at 10:18 EDT, was updated with new material at 19:12 EDT.  

When Religious Freedom Clashes with Access to Care

Glenn Cohen, J.D., Holly Fernandez Lynch, J.D., M.Bioethics, and Gregory D. Curfman, M.D.

July 2, 2014 DOI: 10.1056/NEJMp1407965

At the tail end of this year’s Supreme Court term, religious freedom came into sharp conflict with the government’s interest in providing affordable access to health care. In a consolidated opinion inBurwell v. Hobby Lobby Stores and Conestoga Wood Specialties Corp. v. Burwell (collectively known as Hobby Lobby) delivered on June 30, the Court sided with religious freedom, highlighting the limitations of our employment-based health insurance system.

Hobby Lobby centered on the contraceptives-coverage mandate, which derived from the Affordable Care Act (ACA) mandate that many employers offer insurance coverage of certain “essential” health benefits, including coverage of “preventive” services without patient copayments or deductibles. The ACA authorized the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) to define the scope of those preventive services, a task it delegated to the Institute of Medicine, whose list included all 20 contraceptive agents approved by the Food and Drug Administration. HHS articulated various justifications for the resulting mandate, including the fact that many Americans have difficulty affording contraceptives despite their widespread use and

  • the goal of avoiding a disproportionate financial burden on women.

Under the regulation, churches are exempt from covering contraception for their employees, and nonprofit religious organizations may apply for an “accommodation,” which shifts to their insurance companies (or other third parties) the responsibility for providing free access. However,

  • HHS made no exception for for-profit, secular businesses with religious owners.

Hobby Lobby, a craft-store chain with more than 13,000 employees, is a closely held, for-profit corporation owned by a Protestant family that operates the business in accordance with its Christian principles — for example, donating a portion of proceeds to Christian missions and remaining closed on Sundays. The family does not object to providing coverage for some contraceptives, but

  • it challenged the mandate because it includes contraceptive methods that the family believes cause abortion by preventing implantation of a fertilized egg.

The challenge in Hobby Lobby was not about the Constitution or its First Amendment. Rather, it hinged on the Religious Freedom Restoration Act of 1993 (RFRA), which was Congress’s response to a Supreme Court decision holding that

  1. even if a law in fact burdened religion, it could stand as long as it was not intended to burden religion (was “neutral”),
  2. applied without regard to religious beliefs or practices (was “generally applicable”), and
  3. was rationally related to a legitimate government interest — a low bar.

RFRA applies when a federal law is deemed to “substantially” burden a person’s exercise of religion, even if it is neutral and generally applicable. Such laws may be enforced against religious objectors only when they further a compelling government interest using the least restrictive means available. This is the most demanding standard of judicial review, and few laws meet its requirements. In a 5-to-4 decision the Court found that the contraceptives-coverage mandate did not.

In its RFRA analysis, the Court had to address several key questions:

  1. Are closely held, for-profit corporations “persons” for the purposes of RFRA protection?
  2. Can corporations exercise religion?
  3. Does the contraceptives-coverage mandate substantially burden religion?
  4. Does the mandate advance a compelling government interest? And
  5. are there less restrictive alternatives that would achieve the same result?

In a ruling in which Justice Samuel Alito wrote for the majority (joined by Chief Justice John Roberts and Justices Antonin Scalia, Anthony Kennedy, and Clarence Thomas), the mandate came up short. The majority concluded that RFRA was intended to protect even for-profit corporations and that

  • corporations may exercise religion,
  • rejecting as unreasonable any definition of “person” that would include some but not all corporations.

The majority also concluded that the mandate did place a substantial burden on the companies’ religious beliefs, given the dramatic financial consequences of noncompliance (for example, Hobby Lobby would have faced a fine of $475 million per year) and

  • the fact that the government had extended other exemptions and accommodations in recognition of that burden.

The majority assumed that the government has a compelling interest in promoting free access to contraceptive agents, but it held that

  • the government had failed to advance that interest in the least restrictive way, given
  • the possibility of extending its existing exemptions and accommodations to for-profit corporations

Thus, the Court held that as applied to closely held, for-profit corporations with religious objections, the mandate violates RFRA. It was careful, however, to restrict the decision to the case before it, refraining from opining on the implications for other types of employers or objections to other health care services, which it cautioned must be addressed on a case-by-case basis. Nonetheless, the case may have broad practical impact, since

  • approximately 90% of all U.S. companies are closely held, and
  • “closely held” is not synonymous with “small.”

Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg issued a sharp dissent, in which she was joined by Justice Sonia Sotomayor and in large part by Justices Elena Kagan and Stephen Breyer. Delivering her opinion from the bench, Justice Ginsburg underscored the burden that the majority decision would allow to be placed on women in favor of religious objectors:

“Today’s potentially sweeping decision . . . discounts the disadvantages religion-based opt outs impose on others, in particular, employees who do not share their employer’s religious beliefs.”

Hobby Lobby‘s outcome is of concern to U.S. health care professionals because

  • our health insurance system is still largely dependent on employers.
  • Employers and employees may have fundamentally different perspectives on which medical interventions are acceptable,
  • particularly when the employer’s fundamental mission is not to advance specific religious beliefs and
    • its employees are therefore unlikely to be drawn exclusively from its own religious group.

The Court’s decision allows the beliefs of employers of various sizes and corporate forms to trump the beliefs and needs of their employees, potentially influencing the types of care that will be affordable and accessible to individuals and permitting employers to intrude on clinician–patient relationships.

The case also has important implications for efforts to achieve compromise between religious freedom and health care access. The Obama administration’s attempts to compromise on the contraceptives-coverage mandate ultimately backfired, since its efforts were used to demonstrate that

  • applying the mandate even to secular employers was not necessarily the only way to achieve the government’s interests.

In the future, regulators may be less willing to seek compromise lest their efforts be similarly used against them — and it is bad news for all of us if health policy can be made only through polarization and rancor rather than compromise. On the other hand, in other contraceptives-mandate cases working their way through the courts, nonprofit religious employers argue that the government’s accommodations do not go far enough in protecting their religious freedom, essentially requiring them to deputize a third party to commit what they think is a sin on their behalf.

Finally, in the wake of Hobby Lobby, we may anticipate challenges to other medical services that some religions find objectionable, such as vaccinations, infertility treatments, blood transfusions, certain psychiatric treatments, and even hospice care. Hobby Lobby‘s implications may also extend into civil rights law, with employers asking to “opt out” of laws intended to protect people from employment and housing discrimination based on religion, race, sex, national origin, or pregnancy status. Although the majority deemed these slippery-slope concerns unrealistic, the dissent expressed serious concerns.

Though the decision applies only to closely held, for-profit corporations, it sets a precedent for religious exemptions that could have sweeping implications — and reflects the Supreme Court’s great potential impact on U.S. health care. Yet the Court was applying Congress’s statute, and

  • Congress could, if it chose, scale back the protection offered to religious objectors — a good reason to share public reactions to the decision with our elected representatives.

BUFFER ZONES, BUBBLE ZONES, AND ABORTION CLINICS — ANOTHER WOMEN’S HEALTH CASE

In 2000, concerned about clashes between antiabortion protesters and women seeking abortions, the Massachusetts legislature established an 18-ft radius around the entrances and driveways of facilities providing abortions and specified that within that area, no person could, without consent, approach within 6 ft of another person (a so-called “bubble zone”) for the purpose of protesting, leafleting, counseling, or education. In 2007, the legislature concluded that law was not effective enough and increased its stringency, imposing a 35-ft fixed buffer zone with few exceptions. The law was challenged on free-speech grounds in a case called McCullen v. Coakley, and on June 26, 2014, the U.S. Supreme Court unanimously struck it down as unconstitutional.

The lead opinion by Chief Justice John Roberts, joined by four other justices, noted that sidewalks and public ways hold a “special position in terms of First Amendment protection because of their historic role as sites for discussion and debate.” Although it was abortion that had motivated the statute, the Court held that the law was content- and viewpoint-neutral: it did not focus on what was said but on where it was said, and it burdened all speech, not merely disfavored speech.

On this point, the four remaining justices disagreed. Nevertheless, the Court held that the statute failed the second part of the relevant constitutional test because it was not “narrowly tailored to serve a significant governmental interest.” In particular, though the Court recognized that the buffer zones furthered the state’s interests in “ensuring public safety” on streets and sidewalks and in “preserving access to adjacent healthcare facilities,” it determined that

  • the law problematically criminalized not only protests,
  • but also sidewalk counseling, which could not be done at a distance of 35 ft.
  • It also found that the buffer zones burdened “substantially more speech than necessary to achieve” the state’s interest

and suggested a plethora of less intrusive means the state could have used instead, some of which are used in other states.

Although the decision deals another blow to abortion rights, that blow is not as substantial as some had feared: the finding that the law was content- and viewpoint-neutral allows for the possibility that Massachusetts and other states could pass similar but narrower laws. Moreover, the Court left open the future of the floating “bubble zone” around women approaching clinics for abortions — the strategy that Massachusetts had used from 2000 to 2007 and one that the Court upheld in a Colorado case in 2000. Several justices, however, indicated a willingness to revisit that decision in future litigation.

See §§2000bb–1(a), (b) (requiring the Government to “demonstrat[e] that application of [a substantial] burden to the person . . . is the least restrictive means of furthering [a] compelling governmental interest” (emphasis added)).

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