Yesterday the U.S. Supreme Court handed down a major decision denying women their human right to health care. In Burwell v. Hobby Lobby, the Court decided that private corporations can, based on their owner’s religious views, deny female employees access to essential care. This is yet another example of how the private, market-based health insurance system, which continues to rely on employer-sponsored coverage even under the Affordable Care Act, fails to protect the human right to health care.
Burwell v. Hobby Lobby and Conestoga Wood Specialties Corp. v. Burwell were brought to the Court by two private corporations challenging the Affordable Care Act’s requirement that all large employers provide comprehensive health insurance coverage to their employees, including “preventive care and screenings” without “any cost sharing requirements.” Citing their personal religious views, the companies’ owners objected to the Department of Health and Human Services’ determination that the preventative care and screenings required under the ACA must include contraceptive care, an internationally recognized human right that protects the dignity, freedom, and wellbeing of millions of women and their families.
The Court ruled for the two employers, deciding that the Religious Freedom Restoration Act of 1993, which prohibits the “Government [from] substantially burden[ing] a person’s exercise of religion,” allows companies to impose their owners’ religious beliefs on employees by denying women contraceptive care. The decision allows company owners to go beyond exercising their beliefs in their own lives to imposing their beliefs on their employees and thus curtailing others’ freedoms and rights.
Hobby Lobby highlights one of the many problems with the private, employer-sponsored health coverage system that the Affordable Care Act consolidated, leaving an inequitable yet highly tax-subsidized insurance model intact. Had the federal reform effort instead opted to treat health care as a public good, decoupled from employment and financed publicly, it could have ended corporations’ role in restricting access to care – be they employers or insurance companies. The court’s decision illustrates the urgency for states to set examples and move to universal, publicly financed health care, as is happening in Vermont, following the state’s 2011 health reform law. In Vermont’s Green Mountain Care, medical decisions will be made by patients and their doctors, not by businesses.