Thursday, October 24, 2019
Ninth Circuit Bars Enforcement of ACA Contraception Exemption Rules
The Ninth Circuit this week affirmed a district court's preliminary injunction against agency rules that categorically exempt certain organizations from the Affordable Care Act's contraception requirement.
The ruling is a blow to the administration's efforts to side-step the ACA's contraception requirements for religious groups. We previously posted on the case here.
The case, California v. U.S. Dep't of Health & Human Services, tests HHS's final rules that exempt certain entities from the ACA's contraception-coverage requirement. The court upheld a district court ruling that the final rules likely violated the Administrative Procedure Act.
The ACA provides that group health plans and insurance issuers "shall, at a minimum provide coverage for and shall not impose any cost sharing requirements for . . . with respect to women, such additional preventive care and screenings . . . as provided for in the comprehensive guidelines supported by the Health Resources and Services Administration . . . ." HHS previously exempted group health plans of certain religious employers, like churches. It also had previously provided for an accommodation for certain nonprofits that had a religious objection: those groups merely had to tell HHS that they objected (then HHS would inform the organization's insurer that it had to provide contraceptive care for the organization's employees without any further involvement of the organization). HHS later also exempted certainly closely-held for-profit corporations (after Hobby Lobby) and modified the exemption-trigger to require objecting organizations merely to notify HHS in writing of its objections (after Wheaton College).
But the Trump Administration went a step farther. It issued rules that categorically exempt entities "with sincerely held religious beliefs objecting to contraception or sterilization coverage" and "organizations with sincerely held moral convictions concerning contraceptive coverage." The rules meant that organizations that might previously have sought and received a waiver would be categorically exempt on their own say-so.
The Ninth Circuit ruled that these rules likely violated the APA. In short, the court said that HHS didn't have authority under the ACA to create categorical exemptions:
The statute grants HRSA the limited authority to determine which, among the different types of preventative care, are to be covered. But nothing in the statute permits the agencies to determine exemptions from the requirement. In other words, the statute delegates to HRSA the discretion to determine which types of preventative care are covered, but the statute does not delegate to HRSA or any other agency the discretion to exempt who must meet the obligation.
The court rejected the government's claim that it issued the rules to harmonize the ACA with the Religious Freedom Restoration Act. The court questioned whether the RFRA even gave the government the authority to determine a violation and then act against federal law to effect it. And it went on to say that the accommodation didn't violate the RFRA, anyway. (Recall that the Court dodged this issue in Zubick.)
The dissent argued that the court lacked jurisdiction in light of a nationwide injunction issued by the Eastern District of Pennsylvania. The court responded at length, but acknowledged that it's an open question whether a federal court's nationwide injunction strips other federal courts of jurisdiction in a more limited case.