US District Judge Reed O’Connor ruled on Thursday that the Affordable Care Act’s (ACA’s) requirement for most insurers to cover certain preventative care services without cost-sharing is unlawful. Judge O’Connor—who invalidated the entire ACA in 2018, before the Supreme Court reversed that ruling—had already sided with the plaintiffs in Braidwood vs. Becerra last September, on the grounds that mandatory coverage of HIV prevention treatment, also known as PrEP therapy, violated their religious beliefs. His latest ruling applies to the ACA-mandated preventive services that are compelled by the US Preventative Services Task Force (USPSTF), on the grounds of the task force’s makeup and the fact that some of its recommendations predate the ACA. Services covered for no cost today include screening tests for a variety of cancers, sexually transmitted infections, and diabetes. The ruling does not impact other ACA preventative care services, like contraceptive services and children’s immunizations, as they are based on the recommendations of other government advisory groups. The immediate impact of this week’s ruling is unclear, as the Biden administration has already filed an appeal and may seek to stay the ruling, while most insurance contracts are set on an annual basis.
The Gist: Given the reasoning laid out in Judge O’Connor’s Braidwood v. Becerra ruling last fall, this decision was expected. As with previous attempts to repeal the ACA that have come through his district, the ultimate fate of the ACA’s cost-free preventative care services will likely be decided by the US Supreme Court. It’s possible that the Court may find the narrow targeting of this case more reasonable, making no-cost preventive care coverage optional for employers.
If that happens, millions of Americans could again have to pay for some of the most common and highest-value healthcare services. That additional financial burden, along with tightening of health plan benefit designs, could create barriers to access and exacerbate health disparities.