An ongoing legal challenge is threatening the guarantee of free preventive care in the Affordable Care Act (ACA). Six individuals and the owners of two small businesses sued the federal government, arguing that the ACA provision “makes it impossible” for them to purchase health insurance for themselves or their employees that excludes free preventive care. The plaintiffs argue that they do not want or need such care. They specifically name the medication PrEP (used to prevent the spread of HIV), contraception, the HPV vaccine, and screening and behavioral counseling for sexually transmitted diseases and substance use; however, they seek to invalidate the entire ACA preventive benefit package. A federal trial court judge agreed with some of their claims and invalidated free coverage of more than 50 services, including lung, breast, and colon cancer screenings and statins to prevent heart disease. This ruling, which is currently being appealed, strips free preventive services coverage from more than 150 million privately insured people and approximately 20 million Medicaid beneficiaries who are covered under the ACA’s Medicaid expansion.
This suit was first filed in 2020. The plaintiffs in the case, Braidwood Management v. Becerra, continue to oppose the entire preventive benefit package, which consists of four service bundles: services rated “A” or “B” by the United States Preventive Services Task Force (USPSTF); routine immunizations recommended by the Advisory Committee on Immunization Practices (ACIP); evidence-informed services for children recommended by the Health Resources and Services Administration (HRSA); and evidence-informed women’s health care recommended by HRSA. The trial judge invalidated all benefits recommended by the USPSTF after March 23, 2010, the date the ACA became law. (The court also exempted the plaintiffs on religious grounds from their obligation to cover PrEP.) The Fifth Circuit put the trial court’s decision on temporary hold while the case is on appeal.
The Fifth Circuit, one of the nation’s most conservative appeals courts, will hear the Biden administration’s appeal of the trial court’s USPSTF ruling and the entirety of the plaintiffs’ original challenge, thereby putting all four coverage guarantees in play. The court also will hear whether the ruling should apply only to the plaintiffs or to all Americans.
The trial court held that the USPSTF lacks the legal status necessary under the Constitution to make binding coverage decisions, and that the Secretary of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) — who can make such binding decisions — lacks the power to rectify matters by formally adopting USPSTF recommendations. The judge concluded that federal law fails to require that members be presidential nominees confirmed by the Senate under the Appointments Clause; in the judge’s view, this means that members are not politically accountable for their decisions, which is constitutionally problematic. The judge also ruled that federal law makes the USPSTF the final coverage arbiter, which means that the HHS Secretary, who is nominated and confirmed under the Appointments Clause and thus politically accountable, cannot cure the constitutional problem by ratifying USPSTF recommendations.
On appeal, the Biden administration argues that the USPSTF passes constitutional muster because the HHS Secretary, who oversees the Task Force, is a nominated and confirmed constitutional officer. Alternatively, the administration argues the appeals court should interpret the statute as allowing the HHS Secretary to ratify USPSTF recommendations, since the law specifies that USPSTF members are independent of political pressure only “to the extent practicable.” The administration makes similar arguments on behalf of ACIP and HRSA.
The plaintiffs argue that secretarial ratification cannot cure the constitutional problems with all three advisory bodies. According to the plaintiffs, none of the advisory bodies has the status of constitutional officers demanded by the Appointments Clause, and so their recommendations must remain recommendations only, unenforceable by HHS on insurers, health plans, and state Medicaid programs.
The second issue is the scope of the remedy if the law is found unconstitutional. The trial court did not limit its holding to the four individual plaintiffs and two companies who sued, but instead applied its order nationwide. The Biden administration argues that, if the coverage guarantee is unconstitutional, the court only should prohibit HHS from enforcing the preventive services provision against the plaintiffs who brought the lawsuit and should allow the coverage guarantee to remain in force for the rest of the country. Citing an amicus brief filed by the American Public Health Association and public health deans and scholars, the administration argues that barring HHS from enforcing the preventive services requirement nationwide “pose[s] a grave threat to the public health” by decreasing Americans’ access to lifesaving preventive services. The plaintiffs argue that a nationwide prohibition is necessary, the broader public interest in free preventive coverage is irrelevant, and insurers will voluntarily continue to offer free preventive coverage if people want it.
The administration’s arguments on appeal have attracted amicus briefs by bipartisan economic scholars, organizations concerned with health equity and preventive health, health care organizations, and 23 states. Crucially, the economists point out that, prior to the ACA, comprehensive free preventive coverage was extremely limited because it is not in insurers’ interest to make a long-term economic investment in members’ health. Indeed, prior to the ACA, insurers did not even uniformly cover the basic screenings for newborns to detect treatable illnesses and conditions.
Amicus briefs supporting the plaintiffs have been filed by Texas and an organization dedicated to “protecting individual liberties . . . against government overreach.” All briefing will be complete by November 3, 2023, with oral argument thereafter. A decision is likely in early to mid-2024. Whatever the outcome, expect a Supreme Court appeal given the size of the stakes in the case.