When Religious Freedom Clashes with Access to Care

N Engl J Med 2014; 371:596-599 August 14, 2014 DOI: 10.1056/NEJMp1407965

Perspective

I. Glenn Cohen, J.D., Holly Fernandez Lynch, J.D., M.Bioethics, and Gregory D. Curfman, M.D.

At the tail end of this year’s Supreme Court term, religious freedom came into sharp conflict with the government’s interest in providing affordable access to health care. In a consolidated opinion in Burwell v. Hobby Lobby Stores and Conestoga Wood Specialties Corp. v. Burwell (collectively known as Hobby Lobby) delivered on June 30, the Court sided with religious freedom, highlighting the limitations of our employment-based health insurance system.

Hobby Lobby centered on the contraceptives-coverage mandate, which derived from the Affordable Care Act (ACA) mandate that many employers offer insurance coverage of certain “essential” health benefits, including coverage of “preventive” services without patient copayments or deductibles. The ACA authorized the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) to define the scope of those preventive services, a task it delegated to the Institute of Medicine, whose list included all 20 contraceptive agents approved by the Food and Drug Administration. HHS articulated various justifications for the resulting mandate, including the fact that many Americans have difficulty affording contraceptives despite their widespread use and the goal of avoiding a disproportionate financial burden on women. Under the regulation, churches are exempt from covering contraception for their employees, and nonprofit religious organizations may apply for an “accommodation,” which shifts to their insurance companies (or other third parties) the responsibility for providing free access. However, HHS made no exception for for-profit, secular businesses with religious owners. [Full text]

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