On October 1, 2007, the U.S. Supreme Court turned down a request to review a New York state court decision that requires insurance companies to include contraceptive coverage in drug benefit packages. The request to review the decision was made by Catholic Charities of the Diocese of Albany and eight other New York-based Catholic and Baptist organizations.
The law at issue, the Women’s Health and Wellness Act, has been in effect since January 1, 2003. It requires insurance companies to cover women’s preventative health care, and includes a mandate that insurance plans which cover prescription drugs must also include contraceptive coverage. The law provides a religious exemption to employers such as churches, mosques, and temples whose primary purpose is to promote a particular religious faith and who primarily employ and serve people who share their religious beliefs.
A number of organizations, including Catholic Charities, challenged the law in state court. These did not qualify for the exemption because they operate educational and social service programs such as schools and nursing homes that serve the general public. The organizations argued, however, that they had a “theologically grounded” objection to birth control, and that the state was improperly seeking to “coerce a church entity to finance private conduct that the church teaches is morally wrong.”1 In 2006, the Court of Appeals for the State of New York, the highest court in New York, ruled against the organizations, concluding that the Women’s Health and Wellness Act was a neutral law designed to advance both women’s health and the equal treatment of men and women.
The ruling follows a similar decision in 2004 by the California Supreme Court, which rejected a challenge to a nearly identical state statute. In that case, Catholic Charities of California was also denied a hearing before the Supreme Court.2 The Supreme Court’s decision to not hear the case leaves the law in effect.3
Advocates of sexual and reproductive health are pleased with this decision because they believe the Women’s Health and Wellness Act has helped to end discrimination against women in insurance coverage by enhancing access to reproductive health care including contraception. While birth control is the most widely used prescription drug for women of reproductive age, it was routinely excluded from insurance plans. Women of reproductive age were forced to pay as much as 68 percent more for out-of-pocket medical care than men.4
“Birth control is basic health care and women should have access to it, it is inexcusable for a major employer to deny basic health care to women who work for them,” said JoAnne Smith, CEO of Family Planning Advocates of New York State. “Every court to hear this case…has affirmed the need to include contraceptive coverage in insurance plans,” Smith added.5
- Linda Greenhouse, “Supreme Court Turns Down Cases on Religious Separation,” New York Times, 2 October 2007, accessed 10 October 2007, <http://www.nytimes.com/2007/10/02/washington/02scotus.html?_r=2&
- New York Civil Liberties Union, “U.S. Supreme Court Denies Review of New York Law Requiring Insurers to Cover Contraceptives,” Press Release published 1 October 2007, accessed 10 October 2007 <http://www.nyclu.org/node/1401>.
- Family Planning Advocates of New York State, “Catholic Charities’ Opposition to Women’s Health Law is Put to Rest By U.S. Supreme Court,” Press Release published 01 October 2007, accessed 10 October 2007, < http://www.fpaofnys.org/documents/PR-WHW-USSCDeniesCert-10-1-07.pdf>.