Supreme Court allows Liberty to challenge Affordable Care Act

Decision overrides previous ruling denying university's petition to file suit against Obamacare

The U.S. Supreme Court last week decided Liberty University can challenge the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act’s provisions mandating employers provide health insurance for workers and requiring health plans to offer abortion coverage without copay.

The Supreme Court, in directing the Richmond-based Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals to hear Liberty’s case, overrode its own June 29 decision denying Liberty’s petition to challenge the act better known as Obamacare.

Liberty’s petition for rehearing not only challenged the act’s employer mandate but also argued the act violated Liberty’s religious freedom by requiring the university to provide its employees with birth control and abortion coverage. Liberty, whose motto is “training champions for Christ since 1971,” was founded by evangelical pastor Jerry Falwell.

Liberty Counsel, a nonprofit law firm affiliated with Liberty University, will represent the school before the Fourth Circuit. Matt Staver, chairman of Liberty Counsel and dean of the Liberty Law School, said the case was about religious liberty and the act presented a stark choice for religious employers.

“It’s not where you can exercise your religious conviction and just be inconvenienced by a law — it’s an either or,” Staver said. “Either you adhere to your religious conviction and be fined for violating law, or you abide by Obamacare and violate your religious conviction and conscience. It is a train wreck that will unfold in 2014.”

Staver said Liberty insures nearly 10,000 people. The penalty for failing to include abortion coverage in the insurance plan is $3,000 per employee per year. Tuition for Liberty’s 12,000 resident students — as opposed to students in the school’s online program — is about $20,000 a year, according to the school’s website.

The University will see some changes to its employee benefits plan because of the Affordable Care Act, Health Benefits Financial Analyst Margaret Marsh said. Changes include removing copayment for routine check-ups or preventative exams.

Marsh said her office projected the Affordable Care Act will cost the University about $750,000 extra out of $145 million in expected costs for 2013, which would amount to a 0.54 percent increase in premiums for employees.

Employee contributions to premiums will increase by 3.25 percent for the high premium plan and will not increase for the low premium plan, Marsh said. Seventy-nine percent of University employees signed up for health benefits are in the high premium plan, with the rest in the low premium plan.

“We increased the cost sharing for prescription drugs a minimal amount [to offset costs],” Marsh said. “We’re offering a new prescription program which will provide discounted cost-sharing [payments] to people who participate in our disease management program. The outcome will be a reduction in our health care costs, because people who participate in our disease management programs will hopefully reduce their risks.”

The University has a self-insured health plan, which means it pays for all medical claims directly from its own health care fund. Aetna acts as the third-party administrator for the plan, so it organizes wellness programs, claims payment and establishes contracts with hospitals and doctors.

Staver, meanwhile, said he thinks the Supreme Court will ultimately hear his case.

“I suspect we’ll be filing briefs soon, and oral arguments in spring 2013 and be back on track to the Supreme Court, with a decision no later than 2014 when implementation of law goes into effect,” Staver said.

University Law Prof. Douglas Laycock warned against seeing the order as an indication of how the Supreme Court might rule if it heard Liberty’s case at a later date. “You can’t read any tea leaves in this order,” Laycock said.

In addition to invoking matters of religious freedom, Liberty is appealing the act’s requirement that employers with more than 50 employees provide health care coverage to their workers, University Politics Prof. David O’Brien said. The school is also questioning whether Congress’ power — derived from the Commerce Clause of the U.S. Constitution — to regulate interstate commerce gives it the authority to require employers to purchase health insurance for employees.

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