The U.S. Supreme Court upheld the Trump Administration’s rule under the Affordable Care Act (P.L. 111-148) that any nongovernment, nonpublicly traded employer can refuse to offer contraceptive coverage for moral or religious reasons, and that publicly traded employers can refuse to do so for religious reasons. Application of this rule had been halted by litigation, but the Administration is now free to apply it.
The issues in the case were: (1) whether the ACA actually requires contraceptive coverage or was that just a creature of regulations that any administration may change, and (2) whether the administration complied with Administrative Procedures Act (APA) in light of the surprising breadth of the regulation going well beyond religious objections to include any moral objection.
The prior version of this regulation included an exception for religious employers and small businesses with a religious objection. They had to self-certify that they qualified. Some objected. Shortly after the Administration changed hands, it issued a new version as an interim final regulation.
The Treasury, Health and Human Services (HHS), and Labor Departments have nearly identical versions of these rules. The Treasury version is Reg. §54.9815-2713(a)(1)(iv), but it references HHS regulations (45 CFR 147.131–147.133), and that is where much of the change was made.
The new rule provides that a nongovernment employer that has religious or moral objections to providing coverage for some or all forms of birth control can simply not provide the coverage. These rules also apply to colleges and universities providing student health insurance coverage. The religious exemption is open to any nongovernment employer, including both nonprofit and for-profit entities. The same holds true for the moral exemption, except only the religious exemption is available for publicly traded employers. An objecting employer need not file anything with the government, though affected plan participants need to be notified of mid-plan year coverage changes. Employers are free to pick and choose among contraceptives if they do decide to offer contraceptive coverage.
These regulations extend the exemption for objecting employers to objecting health insurance issuers, and to objecting individuals under which a health insurance issuer may offer a separate benefit package option to any individual who objects to coverage or payments for some or all contraceptive services based on the individual’s sincerely held religious beliefs or moral convictions.
Authority Under ACA
The majority opinion by Justice Thomas viewed the ACA as blank slate on what it required for women’s preventive health. The relevant ACA provision provides that, with respect to women, a group health plan and a health insurance issuer shall, at a minimum provide additional preventive care and screenings “as provided for” in comprehensive guidelines supported by the Health Resources and Services Administration (HRSA), an agency of the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS). At the time of the ACA’s enactment, these guidelines were not yet written.
The HRSA Guidelines were based on recommendations compiled by the Institute of Medicine (now called the National Academy of Medicine). The Guidelines included the contraceptive mandate, which required health plans to provide coverage for all contraceptive methods and sterilization procedures approved by the Food and Drug Administration, as well as related education and counseling.
The same day the Guidelines were issued in 2011, the Departments of Labor, Health and Human Services, and the Treasury (the Departments) issued interim final regulations requiring contraceptive coverage, with exceptions for churches. The Departments determined that it was appropriate that HRSA take into account the mandate’s effect on certain religious employers, and concluded that HRSA had the discretion to do so through the creation of an exemption. Ever since, the HRSA has been tasked (according to the majority opinion) with devising religious exemptions. The majority opinion concluded that ACA granted the HRSA broad authority to define preventive care and screenings, which implies that the HRSA also has broad power to create any religious and moral exemptions. Thus, if the HRSA changes its mind, there is nothing in the ACA to prevent it.
Justice Ginsburg’s dissent (joined by Justice Sotomayor) argued the legislative language HRSA in fact only delegates to the HRSA the task of compiling a list of services that should be provided. The ACA did not delegate the authority to determine who must provide the coverage for these services. Justice Kagan’s concurrence (joined by Justice Breyer) disagreed with the majority and dissent about the clarity of the ACA’s language on this, but from the beginning the Departments acted as if it were up to the HRSA to make this call. Under the Chevron doctrine, the interpretation of unclear legislation by the agency tasked with enforcement is owed due deference by the courts.
No “Open-Mindedness” Test
The majority opinion found no violation of the Administrative Procedures Act. The fact that the final rules made only minor alterations to the interim final regulations did not render the final rules procedurally invalid, because nothing in the record suggested that the Departments maintained an open mind during the post-promulgation process. The “open-mindedness” test has no basis in the APA, according to Justice Thomas.
The majority opinion also addressed the issue of calling the document containing the interim final rules “Interim Final Rules with Request for Comments” instead of “General Notice of Proposed Rulemaking.” The request for comments readily satisfied the APA notice requirements, Justice Thomas ruled. Even assuming that the APA requires an agency to publish a document entitled “notice of proposed rulemaking,” there was no prejudicial error here.
Justice Kagan’s opinion questioned whether the rule was not arbitrary and capricious. The rule went beyond what the Departments’ justification supported, raising doubts about whether the solution lacks a “rational connection” to the problem described. Few employers have expressed reservations about self-certification, and in any case the new exemption includes any employer (except publicly traded employers) with a moral objection whether it is religious or not.
The majority opinion stopped its authority analysis at holding that the ACA authorized the regulation, and stated that it did not need go into the requirements of the Religious Freedom Restoration Act of 1993 (RFRA). Justice Alito (joined by Justice Gorsuch) filed a concurrence taking the position that RFRA compels an exemption for the Little Sisters and any other employer with a similar objection to what has been called the accommodation to the contraceptive mandate.