Obamacare roll-out hits snag as Supreme Court blocks birth control rule
Judge grants Catholic group a temporary injunction against requirement to include contraception in insurance coverage
Only hours before the law was to take effect on New Year’s Day, a US Supreme Court judge blocked the implementation of part of President Barack Obama’s health care law that would have forced some religion-affiliated organisations to provide birth control coverage in their workers’ insurance.
Justice Sonia Sotomayor’s temporary injunction came after a different effort by Catholic-affiliated groups from around the country. Those groups had rushed to the federal courts to stop the start of portions of the Affordable Care Act, also known as Obamacare.
Sotomayor acted on a request from an organisation of Catholic nuns, the Little Sisters of the Poor Home for the Aged. She gave government officials until 10am (EST) on Friday to respond to her order.
The law requires employers to provide insurance that covers a range of preventive care, free of charge, including contraception. The Catholic Church prohibits the use of contraceptives.
The Obama administration crafted a compromise, or accommodation, that attempted to create a buffer for religiously affiliated hospitals, universities and social service groups that oppose birth control.
The law requires insurers or the health plan’s outside administrator to pay for birth control coverage and creates a way to reimburse them.
But for that to work, the nuns would have to sign a form authorising their insurance company to provide contraceptive coverage, which would still violate their beliefs, said Mark Rienzi, the nuns’ lawyer.
According to The New York Times, the nuns said in their Supreme Court brief that they faced steep fines for non-compliance to the Obamacare rule.
“They calculated that they would have to pay an annual fine of approximately US$2.5 million – for an organisation that cares for 69 elderly poor people and operates with an annual budget of approximately US$6 million”, the report quoted it as saying.
In a statement, Rienzi said he was delighted by Sotomayor’s order. “The government has lots of ways to deliver contraceptives to people,” he said. “It doesn’t need to force nuns to participate.”
The White House on Wednesday issued a statement saying that the administration was confident that its rules “strike the balance of providing women with free contraceptive coverage while preventing non-profit religious organisations with religious objections to contraceptive coverage from having to contract, arrange, pay, or refer for such coverage”.
Sotomayor’s decision to delay the contraceptive portion of the law was joined by the US Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit, which also issued an emergency stay for Catholic-affiliated groups challenging the contraceptive provision, including the Archdiocese of Washington DC, and Catholic University.
The Archdiocese of Washington DC praised the appeals court’s action in a statement.
“This action by the US Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit is in line with the rulings of courts all across the country which have held that the [Health and Human Services] mandate imposes a substantial and impermissible burden on the free exercise of religion,” the archdiocese said.
The Supreme Court already has decided to rule on whether businesses may use religious objections to escape a requirement to cover birth control for employees.