PORTLAND, Maine — A top women’s group advocate was among many in Maine on Monday to decry the Supreme Court’s ruling that some private companies can now claim an exemption from the federal health care law that requires employers who provide health insurance to cover birth control.
“The decision will allow employers to impose their religious beliefs on employees, and employees’ use of contraception is none of their bosses’ business,” said Dr. Bets Brown, co-chairwoman of public policy for the American Association of University Women of Maine. “More women will now struggle to access reproductive health care.”
But while some in the state derided the ruling as infringing on the rights of women, others called it a victory against government intrusion on the rights of business owners.
“Today’s Supreme Court decision in Conestoga Wood Specialties v. Burwell and Burwell v. Hobby Lobby Stores is a victory for all Americans who value religious freedom,” said Melissa Weisberg, public policy director for the Christian Civic League of Maine. “With this decision, the U.S. Supreme Court affirms that families do not have to abandon their religious liberty or violate their consciences when they decide to open a business.”
“The Christian Civic League of Maine applauds the nation’s highest court for upholding the law and recognizing that all Americans should be able to live out their sincerely held religious beliefs without improper government intrusion,” she continued.
A divided court voted 5-4 in favor of the Hobby Lobby craft retail chain and wooden furniture maker Conestoga Wood Specialties in respective cases in which the for-profit corporations challenged a provision in President Barack Obama’s Affordable Care Act that requires employers who provide health insurance to offer plans that cover contraception.
Hobby Lobby has one store in Maine, in Bangor, and another one reportedly scheduled to open in the coming months in Auburn.
Three experts who follow health care policy and delivery in the state said that, despite the passionate arguments on both sides, the ruling won’t have much impact on the success of the divisive Affordable Care Act or women’s access to contraceptives.
“When these decisions come out, people on both sides get very heated, and oftentimes rightfully so,” said Mitchell Stein, an independent health policy consultant in Cumberland. “But I wouldn’t want people to get the impression that if they worked for one of these companies, they wouldn’t be able to get the same coverage that somebody working for another company was getting.”
Stein said the ruling will allow certain companies to make use of an exemption in the law already afforded to churches or other religious organizations. In those cases, he said, the organizations aren’t required to use church funds to purchase contraceptives, but the insurance companies do cover birth control for their employees using other revenues.
The Supreme Court ruling opens the door specifically for closely held corporations — typically family-owned companies — to apply the same loophole, according to Stein. He said the decision doesn’t necessarily apply to larger, publicly traded corporations, like Wal-Mart, which might have the size to drive up premiums for insurance companies by opting out of offering contraceptive coverage.
“I don’t think there’s that many companies out there that are necessarily going to fall under this exemption that the court created here,” said Steven Witt, an attorney with the law firm Fisher and Phillips, which has an office in Portland.
Witt acknowledged that Maine may have a higher percentage of family-owned small businesses than many other states, but said many of those small businesses don’t employ the 100 people necessary to trigger the Affordable Care Act’s insurance mandate.
“While we believe a woman’s access to preventive health care should not be impeded by their bosses’ personal beliefs, today’s ruling has little impact on the implementation of the Affordable Care Act,” said Joe Ditre, executive director of Maine Consumers for Affordable Health Care, in a statement. “The decision leaves unchanged the key features of the Affordable Care Act.”
Kate Brogan, vice president of public affairs for Maine Family Planning, said in a statement that she believes the stances of Hobby Lobby and Conestoga Wood represent somewhat isolated cases.
“Although the court gave bosses the right to take away women’s access to affordable birth control, we are confident most bosses will choose not to, and millions of women will still be able to access the care they need under the ACA,” she said.
Regardless of whether the ruling will have a significant impact for Maine employees, many groups in the state nonetheless considered the Supreme Court decision to be a major blow against women’s rights.
Nicole Clegg, vice president of public policy for Planned Parenthood of Northern New England, said her organization is “deeply disappointed that we are still fighting for access to birth control in 2014.”
“To the majority of Americans, birth control is not a controversial issue. It’s basic health care,” she said in a statement issued to the Bangor Daily News. “We know firsthand that access to birth control is both a health care and economic concern for women, and we will work to make sure that this benefit remains in place for the millions of women who rely on it — and to make sure that women have access to basic, preventive care no matter where they live, who they work for, or how much money they make.”
In Maine’s 2nd Congressional District race, where social issues are likely to be a campaign dividing line between Republican Bruce Poliquin and Democrat Emily Cain, Poliquin said on Monday he believes in “individual liberty and freedom” for both women employees and corporate owners alike.
“Women should have the ability to buy the contraceptive product of their choice. No one should restrict what a woman or man chooses to purchase for contraception. Women and men should have the right to use or not use contraception at their own discretion without the courts or government telling them otherwise,” said the former state treasurer. “The Supreme Court ruled small businesswomen and small businessmen have choices in the insurance plans they offer and for which they pay. The Supreme Court has ruled the government should not interfere with someone’s religious beliefs in forcing them to buy a product.”
Cain was more decisively against the ruling in her comments Monday. The state senator from Orono said that when combined with the court’s decision last week to strike down a protest buffer zone around Massachusetts abortion clinics, Monday’s ruling “shows that women’s health care rights are still at risk.”
“Every American deserves access to high-quality health care coverage, no matter where they work. I always have and always will defend the right of women to make their own health care choices,” she said in a statement. “Birth control is not controversial. My opponent believes that life begins at conception and that women’s health care decisions should be in the hands of their bosses.”