Two tri-agency (Internal Revenue Service, Employee Benefits Security Administration, and Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services) Interim Final Rules were released and became effective on October 6, 2017, and will be published on October 31, 2017, allowing a greater number of employers to opt out of providing contraception to employees at no cost through their employer-sponsored health plan. The expanded exemption encompasses all non-governmental plan sponsors that object based on sincerely held religious beliefs, and institutions of higher education in their arrangement of student health plans. The exemption also now encompasses employers who object to providing contraception coverage on the basis of sincerely held moral objections and institutions of higher education in their arrangement of student health plans. Furthermore, if an issuer of health coverage (an insurance company) had sincere religious beliefs or moral objections, it would be exempt from having to sell coverage that provides contraception. The exemptions apply to both non-profit and for-profit entities.
The currently-in-place accommodation is also maintained as an optional process for exempt employers, and will provide contraceptive availability for persons covered by the plans of entities that use it (a legitimate program purpose). These rules leave in place the government’s discretion to continue to require contraceptive and sterilization coverage where no such objection exists. These interim final rules also maintain the existence of an accommodation process, but consistent with expansion of the exemption, the process is optional for eligible organizations. Effectively this removes a prior requirement that an employer be a “closely held for-profit” employer to utilize the exemption.
Employers that object to providing contraception on the basis of sincerely held religious beliefs or moral objections, who were previously required to offer contraceptive coverage at no cost, and that wish to remove the benefit from their medical plan are still subject (as applicable) to ERISA, its plan document and SPD requirements, notice requirements, and disclosure requirements relating to a reduction in covered services or benefits. These employers would be obligated to update their plan documents, SBCs, and other reference materials accordingly, and provide notice as required.
Employers are also now permitted to offer group or individual health coverage, separate from the current group health plans, that omits contraception coverage for employees who object to coverage or payment for contraceptive services, if that employee has sincerely held religious beliefs relating to contraception. All other requirements regarding coverage offered to employees would remain in place. Practically speaking, employers should be cautious in issuing individual policies until further guidance is issued, due to other regulations and prohibitions that exist.
As background, the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act (ACA) requires that non-grandfathered group health plans and health insurance issuers offering non-grandfathered group or individual health insurance coverage provide coverage of certain specified preventive services without cost sharing.
In 2011, the Departments issued regulations requiring coverage of women’s preventive services provided for in the Health Resources & Services Administration (HRSA) guidelines. The HRSA guidelines include all FDA-approved contraceptives, sterilization procedures, and patient education and counseling for women with reproductive capacity, as prescribed by the health care provider (collectively, contraceptive services).
Under the 2011 regulations, group health plans of “religious employers” (specifically defined in the law) are exempt from the requirement to provide contraceptive coverage.
In 2013, the Departments published regulations that provide an accommodation for eligible organizations that object on religious grounds to providing coverage for contraceptive services, but are not eligible for the exemption for religious employers. Under the accommodation, an eligible organization is not required to contract, arrange, pay for, or provide a referral for contraceptive coverage. The accommodation generally ensures that women enrolled in the health plan established by the eligible organization, like women enrolled in health plans maintained by other employers, receive contraceptive coverage seamlessly–that is, through the same issuers or third party administrators that provide or administer the health coverage furnished by the eligible organization, and without financial, logistical, or administrative obstacles.
In 2014, the U.S. Supreme Court decided Burwell v. Hobby Lobby. The Court held that the contraceptive coverage requirement substantially burdened the religious exercise of closely held for-profit corporations that had religious objections to providing contraceptive coverage and that the accommodation was a less restrictive means of provision coverage to their employees.
Because of Burwell v. Hobby Lobby, the Departments extended the accommodation to closely held for-profit entities. Under the accommodation, an eligible organization that objects to providing contraceptive coverage for religious reasons may either:
In 2016, in Zubik v. Burwell, the U.S. Supreme Court considered claims by several employers that, even with the accommodation provided in the regulations, the contraceptive coverage requirement violates the Religious Freedom Restoration Act of 1993 (RFRA). The Court heard oral arguments and ultimately remanded the case (and parallel RFRA cases) to the lower courts to give the parties “an opportunity to arrive at an approach going forward that accommodates [the objecting employers’] religious exercise while at the same time ensuring that women covered by [the employers’] health plans ‘receive full and equal health coverage, including contraceptive coverage.'”
Previously, Who Could Object and How
As provided in the 2015 final regulations, only certain organizations could object to providing contraception coverage. The final regulations provide two accommodations for eligible organizations to provide notice of a religious objection to the coverage of contraceptive services. Employers that object to providing contraceptive services will need to determine if they meet the criteria of an eligible organization in order to use one of the two accommodations. An eligible organization is an organization that meets all of the following requirements.
A “closely held for-profit entity” is defined in the regulations as an organization that:
To determine its ownership interest, the following rules apply:
This information is general and is provided for educational purposes only. It reflects UBA’s understanding of the available guidance as of the date shown and is subject to change. It is not intended to provide legal advice. You should not act on this information without consulting legal counsel or other knowledgeable advisors.