Friday, July 04, 2014

Supreme Court deals a blow to Obamacare

The Supreme Court struck down a key part of President Obama’s signature health-care law this week, ruling that family-owned businesses can invoke religious objections to avoid covering contraception in employees’ health plans. The 5–4 decision, which split the court along conservative-liberal lines, sided with two companies owned by Christian families: craft chain Hobby Lobby and cabinetmakers Conestoga. Both firms argued that the Affordable Care Act’s employer mandate, which compels large companies to provide workers with free birth control, was a “substantial burden” on their religious beliefs, because they consider intrauterine devices and the morning-after pill tantamount to abortion. The court accepted the argument, and ruled that the 1993 Religious Freedom Restoration Act, which allows people to seek exemptions from federal laws that burden their religious practice, could be applied to for-profit firms. Writing for the majority, Justice Samuel Alito said the decision would only affect “closely held” companies—controlled by five or fewer individuals—and suggested that the government or insurers could pay for contraceptive coverage.

Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg denounced the “startling breadth” of the decision in a blistering dissent. Companies, she wrote, could potentially use the ruling to object to “health coverage of vaccines, or paying the minimum wage, or according women equal pay.” The decision came just days after President Obama suffered another significant loss at the Supreme Court, when the justices unanimously ruled that three recess appointments he made to the National Labor Relations Board in 2012 were unconstitutional because Congress was technically still in session.

What the editorials said

This ruling is an “important vindication of religious liberty,” said The Wall Street Journal. The Obama administration was willing to grant exemptions from the contraception mandate to various religious nonprofits—such as colleges and hospitals—yet refused to give them to for-profit firms. Why should companies have less right to religious freedom just because they’re trying to make money?
Once again, “politics has trumped a woman’s right to choose,” said The Baltimore Sun. Although this ruling is limited to four forms of emergency contraception—some of which were already covered by Hobby Lobby’s insurance before Obamacare came into force—the effect will likely be “an increase in unwanted pregnancy.” The decision will have “troubling consequences,” said USA Today. What happens if a company run by Jehovah’s Witnesses objects to covering blood transfusions? Or if devout Christian Scientists employers refuse to cover vaccinations? As Ginsburg wrote in her dissent, this ruling will create a legal “minefield.”

What the columnists said

The Supreme Court has proved it has a favorite religion, said Charles P. Pierce in In 1990, the justices ruled that Native Americans didn’t have the right to consume peyote as a religious sacrament, on the basis that it would “make the professed doctrines of religious belief superior to the law of the land.” Clearly, when it comes to Christianity’s “professed doctrines,” they have no such qualms.

Let’s get one thing clear: The Supreme Court hasn’t denied anyone access to contraception, said Deroy Murdock in It has merely made a small concession to protect religious consciences. Women who work at Hobby Lobby can still receive 16 forms of birth control on their insurance, and buy an IUD or morning-after pill using their own wages. “The Left’s moaning over Hobby Lobby is less about access to medicine and more about access to free stuff.” President Obama could have saved himself a lot of fuss by simply granting these overtly religious companies exemptions, said Ross Kaminsky in This case was a “necessary challenge to his administration’s heavy-handed hubris.”

What this ruling has really highlighted is the “illogic of employer-sponsored health insurance,” said Uwe Reinhardt in The New York Times. Unlike every other industrialized country, our system “endows employers with the quasi-parental power” to choose which programs and treatments should be available to their employees. Not only does this system provide “ephemeral coverage”—people lose their policies when they move jobs—it also costs about twice as much as single-payer insurance in other nations. After this ruling, many Americans will surely be wondering whether employer-provided health care “is really the ideal platform for health-insurance coverage in the 21st century.”
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