(Bloomberg) — Part of the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act (PPACA) is on hold in a Colorado case until at least tomorrow, as the U.S. Supreme Court considers contentions from religious groups that say they don’t want to facilitate coverage for contraception.
Acting just before the effective date of U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) PPACA regulations aimed at ensuring free access to birth control, Justice Sonia Sotomayor on Dec. 31 temporarily blocked the administration from requiring an order of Catholic nuns to comply with the regulations. She gave government lawyers until tomorrow to respond to arguments pressed by the Little Sisters of the Poor, a group that cares for needy elderly people.
Sotomayor — or, if she refers the matter to all nine justices, the full court — now must decide whether to grant a longer delay while the legal dispute plays out. The court could also say it will hear arguments in the case. Sotomayor’s two- sentence order, which by its terms applies only to the litigants in the Little Sisters case, followed similar action at the appeals court level in other cases.
Although the HHS PPACA regulations don’t require the order to provide contraceptive coverage, it can avoid the rule only by submitting a “self-certification” attesting to its objections. The self-certification form is designed to shift the responsibility for providing contraceptive coverage to the objecting group’s insurer, which could then seek government reimbursement.
The Little Sisters order says the provision violates the Constitution and a federal religious-freedom law by forcing the order to become complicit in providing contraceptives.
The regulations “will expose the Little Sisters of the Poor to draconian fines unless they abandon their religious convictions and participate in the government’s system to distribute and subsidize contraception,” lawyers for the order argued.
The administration says its regulations don’t impose a significant burden on the nuns’ religious beliefs.
The rules make an exception for self-funded church health plans, saying their insurance administrators don’t have to provide the coverage at all. The Little Sisters’ health plan is run by another religious organization, the Christian Brothers Employee Benefit Trust, which provides services for almost 500 religious groups. The trust is also a party in the lawsuit.