On Tuesday, the National Women’s Law Center (NWLC) filed federal complaints against five major institutions for violating Obamacare gender discrimination protections. The complaints, which were made to the Department of Health and Human Services’ (HHS) Office of Civil Rights, claim that the institutions’ health plans offer less comprehensive benefits for dependent women than they do for dependent men by excluding maternity care services.
The five organizations named in the complaints are Auburn University, Battelle Memorial Institute, Beacon Health System, Gonzaga University, and the entire Pennsylvania State System of Higher Education (PASSHE). NWLC alleges that these institutions’ health plans explicitly deny employees’ dependent daughters from accessing maternity care services.
Denying maternity benefits to women is equivalent to charging them significantly more for their coverage solely on the basis of gender. According to the Kaiser Family Foundation, 25 percent of all U.S. hospitalizations are a consequence of pregnancy and childbirth, and out-of-pocket costs for maternity care services can reach as high as $15,000 depending on a woman’s insurance plan. NWLC estimates that the five groups named in their complaints employ close to 45,000 employees altogether, meaning that thousands of employees’ dependent daughters could bear the brunt of those maternity costs if they were to become pregnant.
But as the complaints point out, denying employees’ daughters those benefits likely runs afoul of Section 1557 of the Affordable Care Act. Section 1557 states that “an individual shall not… be excluded from participation in, be denied the benefits of, or be subjected to discrimination under, any health program or activity” on the basis of sex, race, age, gender identity, or disability if the organization providing coverage receives federal funding.
In a press release, NWLC spokespeople said they were confident that HHS’ Office of Civil Rights would find the institutions’ practices illegal under Obamacare. “The ACA has made great strides in improving women’s health care and addressing sex discrimination in health insurance coverage,” said NWLC Co-President Marcia D. Greenberger. “The Center is confident that OCR will take all necessary steps to investigate these complaints and ensure that young women have equal access to comprehensive health care coverage.”
Women’s health advocates have touted Obamacare’s landmark protections for women. The health law guarantees women’s preventative services such as mammograms and Pap smears — without a co-pay or deductible — and bans the practice of “gender rating,” in which insurers can charge women higher premiums than men for identical health benefits. It also lists maternity care services as a mandatory “essential health benefit” that any plan sold on a statewide Obamacare marketplace must include.
But even the health law doesn’t fully bridge the gap between men and women’s disparate coverage. The long-term care insurance industry isn’t subject to the same gender protections as other health plans are under Obamacare. In February, the nation’s largest long-term care insurer announced that it would begin setting its prices by gender — and charging women more than men — as early as this year.