The Supreme Court Order in the Little Sisters of the Poor et al. Cases

This week, the Supreme Court issued a somewhat unusual order in Zubik v. Burwell (the nonprofit litigation against the Obamacare contraception mandate) asking for more briefing. Here are the substantive provisions:

The parties are directed to file supplemental briefs that address whether and how contraceptive coverage may be obtained by petitioners’ employees through petitioners’ insurance companies, but in a way that does not require any involvement of petitioners beyond their own decision to provide health insurance without contraceptive coverage to their employees.

Petitioners with insured plans are currently required to submit a form either to their insurer or to the Federal Government (naming petitioners’ insurance company), stating that petitioners object on religious grounds to providing contraceptive coverage. The parties are directed to address whether contraceptive coverage could be provided to petitioners’ employees, through petitioners’ insurance companies, without any such notice from petitioners.

For example, the parties should consider a situation in which petitioners would contract to provide health insurance for their employees, and in the course of obtaining such insurance, inform their insurance company that they do not want their health plan to include contraceptive coverage of the type to which they object on religious grounds. Petitioners would have no legal obligation to provide such contraceptive coverage, would not pay for such coverage, and would not be required to submit any separate notice to their insurer, to the Federal Government, or to their employees. At the same time, petitioners’ insurance company—aware that petitioners are not providing certain contraceptive coverage on religious grounds—would separately notify petitioners’ employees that the insurance company will provide cost-free contraceptive coverage, and that such coverage is not paid for by petitioners and is not provided through petitioners’ health plan.

I can’t really improve on the insightful commentary of my friend, Rick Garnett, on what this might mean. It’s hard, as he says, to escape the conclusion that this is probably good news for the petitioners (after the bad news of Justice Scalia’s passing). And it’s always the politically expedient thing to put the onus on insurance companies.

But there is one way in which the order might not be so good from the claimants’ perspective. What of self-insured claimants? Any resolution to the case that would simply rely on insurers to resolve this issue would not account for those nonprofits, like the Little Sisters of the Poor, who self-insure through a trust called the Christian Brothers Employee Benefits Trust. Shifting the (substantial) burden of compliance to the “insurer” in this sort of case is not shifting it from the employer.

Something to watch in the upcoming briefing.

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