A Texas federal judge has ruled that a provision of the Affordable Care Act that mandates free coverage for certain drugs that prevent HIV infections violates the religious beliefs of a Christian-owned business.
U.S. District Judge Reed O’Connor’s decision came in response to a lawsuit filed by Jonathan Mitchell, a former Texas solicitor general and conservative activist, on behalf of Braidwood Management Inc. and other self-proclaimed Christian employers and employees. .
The 2020 lawsuit challenged a provision of the ACA that required free coverage of the anti-HIV drugs Truvada and Descovy, commonly known as PrEP, which hundreds of thousands of people in America – mostly gay and bisexual men – are taking.
O’Connor sided with Braidwood Management.
“Defendants do not show a compelling interest in forcing private religious companies to cover PrEP drugs without cost sharing and without religious exemptions,” the judge said.
HIV prevention groups were quick to denounce O’Connor’s decision as a “terrible court ruling”.
“This decision is shocking on every level,” said Mitchell Warren, executive director of the HIV nonprofit AVAC. “This defies evidence, logic, public health and human rights and sets back huge progress in the fight to end the HIV epidemic.”
PrEP is a “central element” in the fight against the spread of HIV, he said.
Shelly Skeen, senior counsel at Lambda Legal, predicted the federal government would appeal the decision and warned it could embolden other employers to bring similar lawsuits.
“It’s a disappointing decision because it has wider implications for people just trying to work and live and access health care,” Skeen said.
O’Connor, an appointee of former President George W. Bush who called the ACA unconstitutionalhas become in recent years the unavoidable judge of the conservatives seeking to challenge Obamacare provisions and measures to protect transgender students and enforce Covid vaccine mandates.
Mitchell is best known as the architect of a Texas law that encourages people to deposit proceedings against those suspected of helping women have abortions. He did not immediately respond to an email from NBC News seeking comment.
The Food and Drug Administration approved Gilead Sciences’ Truvada antiretroviral tablet for use as PrEP in 2012. Daily use of the tablet reduces the risk of contracting HIV by more than 99% in men who have sex with men and at least 90% in women.
The FDA approved a second Gilead tablet, Descovy, for use as PrEP in 2019.
In 2019, the U.S. Task Force on Preventive Services gave PrEP what’s called an “A rating,” which under the ACA means the vast majority of insurers were required to provide it. cover for free from January 2021.
However, recent analyzes indicate that not all insurers in the country adhere to this policy. And it has raised concerns among public health experts that these disbursements inhibit the use of PrEP.
“Increasing access to PrEP in the United States has been a key public health goal, and requiring private insurers to provide PrEP without cost sharing has been a key way to promote access” said Jennifer Kates, director of global health and HIV policy at the Kaiser Family Foundation. “However, this latest decision would reintroduce a barrier that would result in reduced access, as fewer people would be able to afford this essential procedure.”
In their lawsuit, some of Mitchell’s clients also objected to having to purchase health insurance that also covers “contraception, the HPV vaccine, and screenings and behavioral counseling for STDs and drug use.”
“They say neither they nor their families need such preventive care,” the judge wrote in his decision. “They also claim that mandatory coverage of these services violates their religious beliefs by making them complicit in facilitating homosexual behavior, drug use and extramarital sexual activity between a man and a woman.”