Supreme Court to hear Obamacare birth-control challenge

image sourceAFP
image captionThe Supreme Court has already upheld the Affordable Care Act

The US Supreme Court has said it will hear a Christian-owned company's challenge to a requirement in President Barack Obama's healthcare law that employers cover workers' contraception.

The owners of Hobby Lobby, a chain of craft supply shops, say the requirement violates their religious beliefs.

But the White House says women, not their bosses, should make decisions about their own healthcare.

The health law has been beset by legal challenges since it passed in 2010.

Oral arguments will be heard next year.

'Committed evangelical Christians'

The Supreme Court will hear two cases involving Hobby Lobby and Conestoga Wood Specialities Corp, out of nearly 40 suits in the federal court system challenging the contraception coverage mandate.

image sourceAP
image captionHobby Lobby's owners say it is run in accordance with "biblical principles"

Hobby Lobby, an arts and crafts chain with 13,000 full-time employees, won in lower court rulings.

Mennonite-owned wood cabinet manufacturer Conestoga Wood Specialties Corp, which employs 950 people, lost its suit in lower courts.

The companies are contesting a provision of the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act that requires most employers who offer health insurance to provide a range of preventative health benefits, including birth-control.

The two businesses object to different types of birth-control, but both assert protections under the 1993 Religious Freedom Restoration Act.

The owners of Hobby Lobby, David Green, Barbara Green and several relatives, describe themselves as "committed evangelical Christians" and say their religious beliefs "forbid them from participating in, providing access to, paying for... or otherwise supporting abortion-causing drugs and devices".

In a court filing, Hobby Lobby says the requirement that it provide coverage for two birth-control drugs known as Plan B and Ella "runs roughshod over the Green family's religious beliefs" because they "could cause an abortion".

The Obama administration has challenged Hobby Lobby's refusal to comply with the law's contraception requirement, arguing that while churches and other religious organisations are exempt, for-profit companies are not.

"The administration has already acted to ensure no church or similar religious institution will be forced to provide contraception coverage and has made a commonsense accommodation for non-profit religious organizations that object to contraception on religious grounds," White House press secretary Jay Carney wrote in a statement released on Tuesday.

"These steps protect both women's health and religious beliefs, and seek to ensure that women and families - not their bosses or corporate CEOs - can make personal health decisions based on their needs and their budgets."

Troubled rollout

The Affordable Care Act, known by critics and supporters as Obamacare, has been subject to countless legal and political challenges from Republicans and conservatives since its passage.

Considered the largest overhaul of the US healthcare system since the 1960s, it aims to extend health insurance coverage to the estimated 15% of the US population who lack it.

The Supreme Court has already ruled on the law. In 2012, it affirmed the constitutionality of the act's central provision, a requirement that most individuals who do not receive health insurance from the government or their employers purchase it or face a fine.

Compounding the political challenges, federal and state health insurance marketplace websites launched on 1 October have been plagued by glitches, resulting in unexpectedly low initial enrolment numbers.

Political support even within Mr Obama's Democratic Party has waned amid revelations that insurance companies have cancelled millions of Americans' medical insurance policies because they did not meet the strict requirements under the healthcare overhaul.

That was despite the president's promise that people would be able to keep their existing plans.

Many Democrats in Congress are said to be worried that the law's problematic rollout could hurt their 2014 re-election chances.

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