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The HSA/HRA response to Hobby Lobby

EZ Thoughts

By Edward Zelinsky


Few recent decisions of the US Supreme Court have engendered as much controversy as Burwell v. Hobby Lobby Stores, Inc. In that case, the Court decided that a closely-held corporation’s employer-sponsored medical plan need not provide contraception if the shareholders of such corporation object to contraception on religious grounds.

Responding to the resulting controversy, Senator Patty Murray, along with many of her Democratic colleagues, has proposed legislation to overturn Hobby Lobby. Senators Kelly Ayotte and Deb Fischer, along with many of their Republican colleagues, have introduced legislation confirming Hobby Lobby. In the current political environment, there is little chance of either bill becoming law any time soon.

However, there is a response to Hobby Lobby which would address the concerns of both contraception advocates and of religious objectors to contraception. In particular, any employer which objects to providing birth control should instead be required to fund for its employees independently-administered health savings accounts (HSAs) or health reimbursement arrangements (HRAs). An HSA or HRA permits the covered employee to spend employer-provided, pre-tax health care dollars on any medical service the employee chooses, from birth control to an MRI, without implicating the employer in the employee’s spending decision.

The HSA/HRA alternative respects the religious rights of sponsoring employers. With conventional insurance or self-insured health plans, the sponsoring employer’s plan provides a menu of choices which frames the employees’ decisions. In contrast, the HSA/HRA approach permits employees to spend health care dollars on whatever medical services employees select including services to which the employer objects – without the employer’s plan framing the employees’ choices. HSAs and HRAs are thus like cash wages which, when spent by the employee, do not entail participation by the employer.

Doctor With Piggy Bank

Justice Alito’s Hobby Lobby opinion identifies two other possible ways to provide contraception services without violating the rights of objecting employers. First, HHS might extend to closely-held for-profit firms the regulatory accommodation now limited to religious nonprofit entities other than churches. Under this accommodation, insurers or third-party administrators provide employees with contraception at no cost to the religious employer. Alternatively, the federal government might itself make birth control available to women who lack contraception coverage from their employer-sponsored health plans.

Commentators have expressed reservations about both these approaches. Some women’s health groups argue that a federal program will stigmatize the women who receive their contraception from such a program. Moreover, the problems of the Department of Veterans Affairs suggest the need for skepticism about the federal government as a provider of medical services. A number of religious groups contend that the current regulatory accommodation for religious employers does not go far enough and still makes employers participate in the provision of birth control to which they object.

In light of these concerns, HSAs and HRAs are compelling alternatives. HSAs and HRAs are analogous to cash wages which the employee spends as he chooses. Such accounts can assure women of the ability to obtain contraception which they seek with employer-provided, pre-tax health care dollars without burdening the religious beliefs of employers who object to involvement with contraception.

Suppose, for example, that Hobby Lobby is required to establish for each of its employees an HSA or HRA administered by the company’s bank. A Hobby Lobby employee could submit receipts to the bank for any type of medical care the employee selects. The employee would subsequently receive from the bank a reimbursement check for this care from his or her HSA/HRA account. Alternatively, HSA/HRA debit cards have become popular devices. These cards allow a covered employee to swipe when receiving health care services with the card.

These accounts could be used by each employee to defray any medical expense the employee elects including, but not limited to, the kinds of contraception to which the employer objects. However, the employer would not be complicit in the employee’s medical choices just as the employee does not participate in an employee’s decision to spend her wages on something with which the employer disagrees.

The HSA/HRA approach potentially has political legs. HHS (along with the Departments of the Treasury and Labor) could adopt regulations implementing this approach. Conservatives like HSAs and HRAs since these accounts implement a consumer-driven approach to health care. Liberals want to assure employees of contraception even if employers object to contraception. The HSA/HRA response to Hobby Lobby thus has bi-partisan appeal and is a compelling compromise as a matter of law and public policy.

ZelinskiEdward A. Zelinsky is the Morris and Annie Trachman Professor of Law at the Benjamin N. Cardozo School of Law of Yeshiva University. He is the author of The Origins of the Ownership Society: How The Defined Contribution Paradigm Changed America. His monthly column appears on the OUPblog.

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Image credit: Doctor With Piggy Bank. Photo by prosot-photography, iStockphoto.

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