Could the Blunt Amendment Allow Employers to Block HIV Screening?

The Weekly Standard‘s John McCormack insists that my piece a few days ago on Sen. Roy Blunt’s (R-Mo.) amendment, which would expand “conscience” exemptions in the Affordable Care Act, is inaccurate. He maintains that it would not allow health care providers or employers to deny certain services or treatments:

Can Democrats cite real examples of Christian businessmen denying AIDS treatment or screenings prior to Obamacare’s passage? No, they can’t. Because that never happened. (Though you can find countless examples of Christians setting up ministries specifically devoted to providing care to AIDS patients.) Furthermore, the conscience bill would not let employers decide by themselves to ban coverage of specific services. If an employer wanted to target AIDS victims who work for him, he would have to find an insurance company that specifically denied treatment for AIDS. Does such an insurance company exist in the United States of America?

McCormack writes that “the conscience bill would not let employers decide by themselves to ban coverage of specific services.” Except, that’s exactly what the bill says it would do. It states that “a health plan shall not be considered to have failed to provide [Essential Health Benefits or Preventive Services]” if it fails to cover the service or benefit because “providing coverage…of such specific items or services is contrary to the religious beliefs or moral convictions of the sponsor, issuer, or other entity offering the plan.” Moreover, employers frequently set up their own insurance plans and then pay insurance companies to administer them—more than half of workers were covered by such plans, according to the Employee Benefit Research Institute. So employers wouldn’t have to find an insurance company that denied treatment for services or benefits mandated under the Affordable Care Act. They could design their own. 

McCormack further expresses utter disbelief that an employer or an insurance company would deny treatment to someone who has HIV or AIDS. There is actually a long history of employment discrimination cases involving employers either using this pretense to fire employees whose health care costs are expected to skyrocket on the basis of having HIV/AIDS or insurance companies denying benefits, and they’re hardly just a thing of the past. On the one hand, it’s a sign of progress in the fight against HIV/AIDS that McCormack finds the idea of this unconscionable; on the other hand, there was an Academy Award winning film starring Tom Hanks and Denzel Washington on the subject, so it’s the kind of history he should be aware of.