Employers and health plans should be aware that two recent federal decisions have recognized that the non-discrimination provision in the Affordable Care Act prohibits discrimination on the basis of gender identity. Plans cannot categorically exclude coverage for procedures to treat gender dysphoria.

In Boyden v. Conlin, the U.S. District Court for the Western District of Wisconsin found that the state’s exclusion of gender reassignment-related procedures from the state employees’ health insurance coverage constitutes sex discrimination in violation of Section 1557 of the Affordable Care Act (the “ACA”) and Title VII of the Civil Rights Act. Section 1557 of the ACA prohibits discrimination and the denial of benefits under a health program or activity, any part of which is in receipt of federal financial assistance, on the basis of race, color, national origin, sex, age or disability. The plaintiffs, two transgender women employed by the State of Wisconsin, also alleged that the exclusion violated the Equal Protection Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment.

This case involved the exclusion of “procedures, services, and supplies related to surgery and sex hormones associated with gender reassignment” from the health insurance coverage. Pursuant to the exclusion, the health plan did not cover hormone therapy involving gender reassignment surgery, or the surgery itself. Defendants argued that the exclusion did not discriminate on the basis of sex because the plan excludes coverage for all cosmetic treatments for psychological conditions, and because the exclusion simply prohibits coverage for gender reassignment procedures, not because plaintiffs are transgender. The court disagreed, finding that the case constituted a “straightforward case of sex discrimination” because the exclusion treated people differently based on their natal sex. The court also found that the exclusion implicated “sex stereotyping by limiting the availability of medical transition … thus requiring transgender individuals to maintain the physical characteristics of their natal sex.”

The court also found liability against the state on plaintiffs’ Equal Protection Clause claim. In applying heightened scrutiny review, the court concluded that the state failed to show that the exclusion was the product of cost concerns or concerns about the safety and efficacy of gender reassignment surgery and hormone therapy. Because the state could not put forth evidence of a genuine reason for the exclusion, the court found in favor of plaintiffs on the Equal Protection Claim.

Two days after the decision in Boyden, in Tovar v. Essentia Health, the District Court for the District of Minnesota held that Section 1557 prohibits discrimination on the basis of gender identity. In that case, plaintiffs alleged that Essentia Health and HealthPartners Inc. violated Section 1557 by sponsoring or administering a plan that categorically excluded coverage for all health services and surgery related to gender reassignment. Section 1557 incorporates four federal civil rights statutes that prohibit discrimination on the basis of: race, color and national origin (Title VI); sex (Title IX); age (ADEA); and disability (Rehabilitation Act). Concluding that Title IX’s prohibition against sex discrimination should be read as coextensive with Title VII, and noting that courts have recognized a cause of action under Title VII for sex discrimination based on gender identity and gender-transition status, the court determined that “sex discrimination encompasses gender-identity discrimination.” The court thus concluded that Section 1557 prohibits gender identity discrimination and denied defendants’ motion to dismiss.

The court also declined to stay the action pending resolution of Franciscan Alliance, Inc. v. Burwell, in which the Northern District of Texas issued a nationwide injunction enjoining enforcement of the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) regulations providing that Section 1557’s prohibition of sex discrimination encompasses gender identity discrimination. The Minnesota court concluded that a stay was not warranted because its conclusion that Section 1557 prevents discrimination based on gender identity is based on the plain reading of the statute and does not rely on the Franciscan Alliance decision.

Employer Takeaways

These two cases are the latest in a series in which plaintiffs allege that their employer sponsored health plans are designed in a manner that discriminates based on gender identify in violation of Section 1557 of the ACA and Title VII of the Civil Rights Act. While an earlier decision (Baker v. Aetna Life Insurance Co., 228 F. Supp. 3d 764 (N.D. Tex. 2017)) by the Northern District of Texas declined to find a cause of action for gender identity discrimination under Section 1557, these decisions are in line with the current trend to allow gender identity discrimination claims to be pursued under Section 1557. Therefore, while HHS continues its current policy of non-enforcement of allegations of gender identity discrimination under Section 1557, employers should be aware of provisions in their group health plans that exclude coverage for transgender benefits and litigation risks that these provisions may pose.

Notably, the plans in both Boyden and Tovar included categorical exclusions for services and/or surgeries related to gender reassignment or transition. These categorical exclusions often are a red flag. By contrast, in Baker, the plan did not categorically exclude gender reassignment procedures; there, the insurance company denied the plaintiff’s request for breast augmentation surgery as not medically necessary. The Baker court found in favor of defendants on both the Section 1557 and Title VII claims. Thus, employers are advised to review their plans to ensure that services to treat gender dysphoria and related conditions are made available to their covered employees.

In the midst of one of the worst flu seasons to date, many hospitals and other health care organizations enforced mandatory flu vaccine policies for their employees to boost vaccination rates. However, recent litigation and governmental actions should serve as a reminder that health care entities should carefully consider safeguards whenever implementing mandatory vaccine policies and to not categorically deny all requests for religious exemptions based on anti-vaccination beliefs.

In January, the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) announced the formation of a new Conscience and Religious Freedom Division in the HHS Office for Civil Rights (OCR) and released a proposed rule to provide protections for health care workers who refuse to participate in services that run counter to their religious beliefs or moral conviction. Recent legal challenges to mandatory vaccination policies in the health care context have also gained media attention.

Earlier this month, the United States Department of Justice (DOJ) accused a county-owned skilled nursing facility (SNF) in Wisconsin of violating a certified nursing assistant’s religious rights when it required her to be vaccinated or be terminated if she refused.  Although the certified nursing assistant believed that the Bible prohibited her from receiving the vaccine, the SNF refused to grant her an exemption from its vaccination policy because she was unable to produce a written statement from the clergy leader supporting her request, as the SNF’s exemption policy required. The DOJ complaint asserts that the SNF’s vaccination policy denies religious accommodations to employees who do not belong to churches with clergy leaders and that the SNF unlawfully denied the employee a reasonable accommodation for her religious beliefs when it refused her request for an exemption.

However, not all requests for accommodation must be honored.  In Fallon v. Mercy Catholic Medical Center, an employee sued his hospital employer for wrongful termination alleging religious discrimination and a failure to accommodate in violation of Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 when the hospital terminated him for refusing to get his annual flu shot. The Third Circuit Court of Appeals sided with the hospital and held that the employee’s “sincerely held beliefs” were not religious but based on health concerns, and therefore, the hospital did not violate Title VII.

In another recent development, a Massachusetts state Superior Court dismissed a lawsuit filed by the Massachusetts Nurses Association against Brigham and Women’s Hospital for lack of standing when the union challenged the hospital’s flu vaccination policy. The dismissal occurred a few months after the court denied the union’s request for an injunction.  Thus, a plaintiff’s standing to challenge mandatory vaccination policies will be scrutinized.

Key Takeaways

Despite the actions of DOJ and HHS, health care employers are well within their rights to implement a mandatory flu vaccination policy, especially considering the potential implications to patient safety. Employers need to be prepared to handle requests for reasonable accommodations made by employees who have sincerely held religious beliefs against flu vaccination.  When presented with such a request for accommodation, employers should engage in the interactive process with the employee as outlined in this recent blog post.

To lessen the risk of infringing on worker’s rights, many health care entities are employing non-mandatory tools and policies to boost employee vaccine participation through positive enforcement rather than with the threat of being fired. For example, health care entities can ensure that employees are educated and reminded about the benefits of being vaccinated, provide free and convenient access to vaccines, and issue small incentives and rewards to employees who are vaccinated.

Whenever implementing a mandatory vaccination policy, employers should be prepared for a challenge. Essentia Health required its employees to receive the flu vaccination and sustained a public legal challenge from three hospital unions.  Essentia prevailed, discharging 50 workers who refused to be vaccinated.

Lastly, health care entities should review applicable state-worker vaccination laws to ensure they are in compliance with such laws when deciding upon vaccination policies.