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Hobby Lobby unravels one more thread of our inequitable quilt

Money, Sex, and Religion — The Supreme Court's ACA Sequel

By George J. Annas, J.D., M.P.H., Theodore W. Ruger, J.D., and Jennifer Prah Ruger, Ph.D., M.S.L.
The New England Journal of Medicine, July 16, 2014

The Supreme Court decision in the Hobby Lobby case is in many ways a sequel to the Court's 2012 decision on the constitutionality of the Affordable Care Act (ACA). Like the 2012 case, the decision was decided by a 5-to-4 vote, but in the initial ACA decision, Chief Justice John Roberts acted to “save” the ACA. Not this time. To simplify, the choice facing the Court in the Hobby Lobby case was whether to favor the exercise of religion by for-profit corporations (whose owners believe contraceptives that may prevent fertilized eggs from implanting violate their religious beliefs) over the federal government's attempt to create a uniform set of health care insurance benefits.

(This article goes on to discuss the issues in the Hobby Lobby decision, including the ACA and the Religious Freedom Restoration Act, religion and birth control, and religion and women’s health. The authors end with the following section on medical care and the ACA.)

Medical Care and the ACA

In terms of health care, the reaction of the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists (ACOG) to the Court's opinion seems just about right to us: “This decision inappropriately allows employers to interfere in women's health care decisions . . . [which] should be made by a woman and her doctor, based on the patient's needs and her current health.” ACOG went on to underline that contraceptives and family planning are mainstream medical care and should be treated as such. In their words, “access to contraception is essential women's health care.”

The Court's ruling can also be viewed as a direct consequence of our fragmented health care system, in which fundamental duties are incrementally delegated and imposed on a range of public and private actors. The Court is correct on one dimension of its opinion: if universal access to contraceptives is a compelling societal interest, then the provision of such access ought to fall first and foremost on the national government and only secondarily be transferred to private parties. Our systemic reliance on health insurance that is based on private employment provokes just this sort of clash between public and private values.

Our incremental, fragmented, and incomplete health insurance system means that different Americans have different access to health care on the basis of their income, employment status, age, and sex. The decision in Hobby Lobby unravels only one more thread, perhaps, but it tugs on a quilt that is already inequitable and uneven. A central goal of the ACA was to repair some of this incremental fragmentation by universalizing certain basic health care entitlements. In ruling in favor of idiosyncratic religious claims over such universality, the Court has once again expressed its disagreement with this foundational health-policy goal.

http://www.nejm.org/doi/full/10.1056/NEJMhle1408081?query=TOC#t=article

George Annas: http://www.bu.edu/sph/profile/george-annas/

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Comment:

By Don McCanne, MD

The last paragraph says it all:

“Our incremental, fragmented, and incomplete health insurance system means that different Americans have different access to health care on the basis of their income, employment status, age, and sex. The decision in Hobby Lobby unravels only one more thread, perhaps, but it tugs on a quilt that is already inequitable and uneven. A central goal of the ACA was to repair some of this incremental fragmentation by universalizing certain basic health care entitlements. In ruling in favor of idiosyncratic religious claims over such universality, the Court has once again expressed its disagreement with this foundational health-policy goal.”

Need we say, single payer?