American Journal of Law & Medicine

Federal Court Hears Challenges to HHS Mandated Contraception Coverage

Federal Court Hears Challenges to HHS Mandated Contraception Coverage--Belmont Abbey College v. Sebelius (1) and Wheaton College v. Sebelius (2) --On December 18, 2012, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia consolidated the Belmont Abbey College v. Sebelius and Wheaton College v. Sebelius cases and held that the claims presented were not ripe for judicial review until the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) promulgated its promised new Final Rule. (3) The plaintiffs in these cases, the first to be argued at the federal appellate level, (4) contested an HHS regulation that requires most group health plans (5) to cover women's preventative care, including "FDA [Food and Drug Administration] approved contraceptive[s]," without cost sharing. (6) These cases join more than thirty others (7) challenging the regulation, which was promulgated to comply with the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act (PPACA). (8) The plaintiffs in these cases are Belmont Abbey College, a private Benedictine Catholic college in North Carolina, and Wheaton College, a private Christian liberal arts college in Illinois (collectively, "Plaintiffs"). (9) The Plaintiffs, based on religious moral grounds, strongly object to being forced to offer contraceptives to their employees through their health plans, (10) Under HHS's initial proposed regulation, both religious employers and religiously affiliated organizations would be in violation of the regulation if they refused to cover contraceptive services. (11) The interim final rule, however, authorized HHS's Health Resources and Services Administration (HRSA) to exempt certain employers, namely non-profit churches and religious orders, from compliance with the regulation. (12) The government has implemented a one-year safe harbor to protect organizations like Belmont Abbey and Wheaton Colleges from enforcement but failed to include religious colleges in its final definition of "religious employers." (13) Nevertheless, the government indicated that it plans to work with the colleges and other religious institutions with similar moral concerns to find a way to avoid enforcement after the safe harbor ends. …

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