Fate Uncertain for HHS’s Extension of ACA Discrimination Protections to Abortion & Gender Transition

In May 2016 HHS issued a final rule implementing the Affordable Care Act’s Section 1557 nondiscrimination provision, which applies to recipients of funding from HHS. The rule prohibits discrimination on the basis of gender identity and termination of pregnancy, as well as race, color, national origin, sex, age, and disability. The new rule has been interpreted to require covered entities to perform and provide insurance coverage for gender transitions and abortions, regardless of their contrary religious beliefs or medical judgment.

The HHS rule has been challenged in court at least twice. On December 31, 2016, the U.S. District Court in Wichita Falls, Texas enjoined nationally the portions of the rule prohibiting discrimination on the basis of gender identity and termination of pregnancy. Franciscan Alliance, Inc. v. Burwell, Civil Action No. 16-cv-00108. The Order was appealed by the ACLU and the River City Gender Alliance and the appeals remain pending.

The Trump Administration has not indicated whether it will challenge the Court’s injunction and enforce the rule. The current Administration position favoring repeal of ACA in its entirety is consistent with the policy changes already made by the Trump administration. On February 22 the Departments of Education and Justice withdrew agency guidance that mandated transgender student access to restrooms consistent with gender identity. In late March President Trump appointed Roger Severino to head HHS’s Office of Civil Rights (OCR) which is charged with enforcing the HHS rule. Although Severino’s appointment has been controversial, as yet there is no indication from the OCR as to its enforcement position under new HHS leadership.

In the only other reported case brought under the rule’s prohibition of discrimination based on gender identity, on December 6, 2016 the U.S. District Court in Oakland, California stayed further proceedings in a case challenging an employer’s denial of gender transition health coverage. Robinson v. Dignity Health, Civil Action No. 16-cv-3035. The stay was granted pending the outcome of Gloucester County School Bd. v. G.G., a case scheduled for hearing before the Supreme Court. However, on March 6 the Supreme Court remanded the case back to the Court of Appeals for further consideration in light of Justice’s and Education’s withdrawal of guidance on February 22.  The California court has continued the stay in the Robinson v. Dignity Health case based on the pending bankruptcy of the plaintiff and scheduled the next hearing for May 19.

The Supreme Court’s action suggests that courts across the country may be taking a “kick the can down the road” approach on the Section 1557 rule as the Trump Administration has promised to repeal and replace ACA, or alternatively that the Court prefers to review the case only when the Court is back to full strength. Currently, the HHS rule’s provisions relating to gender identity and termination of pregnancy remain enjoined nationally.

If you have any questions or would like to discuss how the Section 1557 rule affects you or your business, please contact Patrick W. McGovern, Esq. at 973-535-7129 or pmcgovern@nullgenovaburns.com, Gina M. Schneider, Esq. at 973-535-7134 or gmschneider@nullgenovaburns.com or Ryann M. Aaron, Esq. at 973-387-7812 or raaron@nullgenovaburns.com.

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