Wednesday, March 26, 2014

Hobby Lobby vs Obamacare

The Supreme Court (SCOTUS) heard the oral arguments in the case of Hobby Lobby vs Obamacare. The actual case probably has a different official name and some kind of number. In short, this case is about Hobby Lobby's objection to having to pay for contraceptives for their employees under the rules of the Affordable Care Act (ACA).

Hobby Lobby is a privately held company that has over 500 stores that sell supplies for crafts, home accessories and junk. The owners are a Christian family and believe that contraception is akin to abortion. They contend that under our constitution they have a right to refuse provisions of the ACA that goes against their religious beliefs. This in effect would give companies the same religious standing as an individual. I won't pretend to know all the legal technicalities or to be a constitutional expert. What I will do is give you my opinion on the issue.

Obamacare may ultimately prove to be a good law or it may prove to be a disaster. So far it has proved to have flaws and benefits. Regardless, as of 2014, it is the law. A main provision of the ACA is that everyone gets treated the same. You can't be discriminated against because of a pre-existing medical condition, gender, race, sexual  preference or religious beliefs. That last one, religious beliefs, is at the crux of the issue. Hobby Lobby contends that they have the right to deny contraceptive benefits to their employees regardless of the employees' religious beliefs.

This sounds like a double standard to me. The company gets to exercise their religious beliefs but the employees don't? I'm quite certain that some of Hobby Lobby's employees believe contraceptives are a valid choice and in fact use them. They would probably like the company and insurance carrier to help pay for them.

The problem with Hobby Lobby's stance is that once we allow this exception to the ACA we open a Pandora's box of future exceptions. Employers and employees will be able to object to any requirement of the ACA that goes against their religious beliefs. Where does it stop? Jehovah Witnesses are opposed to blood transfusions and some people and religions are against vaccinations. There are even religions that are completely against healthcare. They believe if you are good that god will heal you. There is no need for doctors or drugs. So, if I am a Jehovah Witness and own a business I can opt out of the blood transfusion parts of the health plan? The same if I object to vaccinations? What if I don't believe in any kind of healthcare, only prayer. Am I off the hook completely? While the Hobby Lobby case is about a company having to pay for benefits it is opposed to, what about the employees who are covered by a group policy? Do they have to pay for benefits they are opposed to or may never use?

Let me put my cynical hat on. Because the insurance costs for some conditions and diseases are expensive, it would be to a companies advantage to eliminate coverage for them from their group insurance policies. I'm thinking that some owners would profess that their religion doesn't believe in cancer or Alzheimer's or hepatitis or HIV/Aids. Some charlatan cleric and a couple of lawyers would be able to establish a religion that has an objection to any ailment you want. Companies and insurance carriers would conspire to come up with hybrid policies. So what would be left to cover? Maybe a hangnail or a paper cut, as long as neither got infected. Of course stiffy pills and penis pumps would always be covered because the company owners and executives are old guys who need help in that area.

I support religious freedom but like free speech there are limits. When your religion or speech infringes on my religion, lack of religion or speech there is a problem. Just as you can't yell "fire" in a crowded theater, you shouldn't be able to yell "religion" when it may endanger me or deny my rights. While contraceptives may be a religious issue, it is are also a health issue between a patient and a doctor. Just because you work for Hobby Lobby that shouldn't require you to have a baby or be celebrate. What's the alternative, the rhythm method? You know what they call couples who use the rhythm method? Parents. Some may even contend that the rhythm method is a form of contraception so maybe Hobby Lobby employees can't do that either.

One of the main tenets of Obamacare was to eliminate all the exceptions that insurance companies had. If we now allow a whole new category of religious exceptions it's the same old situation. Health insurance is like many other institutions in a civilized society. We all have to pay for common things, some of which we won't be able to take advantage of or get our fair share of. Single people, childless couples and old people don't have children in school but they pay school taxes. Those who never use public transportation help pay for it. Some never use the public parks but others use them almost every day. Each house doesn't have the same amount of garbage but they all pay the same garbage fee. The list goes on. It's the same deal with health insurance. Some people have catastrophic illnesses and have thousands of dollars of claims while others are never sick a day in their life. Most folks are somewhere in the middle. That's the formula. Lose a lot of money on some customers, make a lot of money on others and break even or make a small profit on most. Exceptions or exemptions skew the equation. Let me also state that the coverage of contraceptives does not require anybody to use them. If a Hobby Lobby or General Motors employee does not believe in contraception they don't have to use them. Just as a Jehovah Witness does not have to get a blood transfusion even though their insurance covers it.

Freedom of religion means each of us are free to practice our religion, not freedom to impose our religion on others. Organized religions already enjoy some governmental preferences. Let's not extend those preferences to health insurance.

I hope SCOTUS rules against Hobby Lobby. Right now it looks like it will be another 5-4 vote although the outcome is in doubt. A final decision probably won't be made until June.

What do you think?


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