Why Your Employer Can't Cut Off Your Contraception Coverage

On the Fourth of July, while you were stuffing your face with patriotic burgers and watching patriotic fireworks, the Supreme Court handed down an emergency injunction in a case involving Wheaton College's objection to the Affordable Care Act's contraception benefit, a decision that acted as an addendum to the Hobby Lobby decision. As I ranted over here, this is the decision that could really open the floodgates to thousands of claims from all kinds of organizations and companies that don't want to let their employees get contraception. But after thinking and reading about it for a while, there's something I think everyone seems to be missing, and it could mean that no one is actually going to lose their coverage, even temporarily.

I should say that it's entirely possible that I'm completely wrong about this, and there's some bureaucratic detail deep within the ACA that I've overlooked. But the first thing to remember is that the ACA requires that insurance plans cover a variety of kinds of preventive care, including contraception; this issue is about what exactly a company or organization has to do when they have an objection to contraception coverage. The Obama administration constructed an alternative arrangement, which until now was supposed to be used only for religiously affiliated non-profits but, after the Hobby Lobby decision, may have to be used for basically anyone, including for-profit companies. The way it works is that if your group doesn't want to be tainted by the sin of contraception, there's a form you file with the government stating your objection. You send a copy to your insurer or third-party administrator (TPA), and the insurer/TPA (I'm just going to say insurer from this point on) arranges for the coverage with the government, by getting reimbursed out of other funds.

The problem is that Wheaton College, along with dozens of other organizations that have filed suit, believes that just filling out this form and sending it to their insurer makes them complicit in sin, because doing so triggers the arrangement under which their employees will get coverage. Let's leave aside the merit of this belief, but by granting the emergency injunction the Court's majority essentially accepted that filling out the form and sending a copy to their insurer was indeed a burden on Wheaton's religious freedom. This made Sonia Sotomayor absolutely livid, since just four days before the Court had used the existence of that very form as proof that there was a less restrictive alternative than the contraception mandate available.

So what Wheaton would prefer is that they not fill out the form and send it to the insurer. Instead, they want to send a letter to the government just stating their objection—a letter which wouldn't have to inform the government of who their insurer is. In her dissent, Sotomayor warned that this could become a bureaucratic nightmare, because now the government has to figure out who the insurer is for every company that sends a letter, so they can get in touch with the insurer and arrange the alternate payment procedure for contraceptive coverage.

And this is where I'm puzzled. Because under the ACA, ordinary insurance coverage has to provide prescription contraception with no cost-sharing (meaning without copayment or deductable). That's the default setting. So let's say I've started a new non-profit aimed at educating America's youth about the important cultural contributions of 1980s hair metal bands. I get health insurance for my employees, and because of the requirement in the ACA, it includes coverage for contraception. Then after spending an extended period listening to Stryper, I realize that contraception is sinful and try to deprive my employees of it.

Depending on the outcome of these cases, I may have a couple of options. I can file the original form with the government and send a copy to my insurer, in which case those two will arrange for my employees' contraception coverage to continue. If I object to the form, as Wheaton College does, I'll just send a letter to the government saying "I'll have none of this!"

But since I don't want to inform my insurer and thus trigger the alternate arrangement, my insurer has no idea that I object to contraception coverage. That means they'll continue to provide it to my employees, as the law requires. If because of ordinary bureaucratic slowness it takes the government a while to find my insurer and inform them of my objection, my employees will still have contraception coverage in the meantime. Whether I'm active or passive the coverage continues, either because the alternate arrangement has been triggered, or because the insurer keeps doing what they've been doing because they don't know of my objection.

To repeat, there may be something I'm missing here. But it seems that even if the Hobby Lobby and Wheaton cases impose more bureaucracy and make things more cumbersome for the government and insurers, as long as contraception coverage without cost-sharing is the default setting for insurance plans, people won't actually have their coverage interrupted, no matter what the preferences of their employer.

Comments

You may be correct about the limited reach of this decision. But is that part of Roberts' long-con? Reassure them that a decision has limited reach, and the next decision, and the next. Drip, drip, drip.

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