Medical Malpractice in Pennsylvania: What is MCARE and how does it work?

By Matthew Young

Medical malpractice in Pennsylvania revolves around the MCARE statute. MCARE stands for “Medical Care Availability and Reduction of Error” — an Act passed and signed into law in 2002.

MCARE requires that participating providers and hospitals carry a minimum of $500k in coverage per occurrence or claim. (We will get back to what exactly counts as an “occurrence.”) MCARE also refers to a special fund within the State Treasury that aims to “ensure reasonable compensation for persons injured due to medical negligence.” The MCARE fund pays claims in excess of the $500k in coverage that participating health care providers and hospitals are already required to buy themselves to insure against medical professional liability actions.

How does an injured patient get compensated? Here’s how it works: first, a provider has to tender their $500k. Only after they tender does the MCARE fund offer excess coverage. The excess coverage offered is an additional $500k. So if you sue a provider and a hospital, each self-insured with $500k, you can recover $1 million from the self-insurance, and on top of that, once both the provider and hospital tender, the MCARE fund can layer on an additional $500k for the provider and an additional $500k for the hospital. $500k from the provider + $500k from MCARE for the provider + $500k from the hospital + $500k from MCARE for the hospital = $2 million recovery. Simple enough, right?

Continue reading

Melinda Buntin on ‘The Week in Health Law’ Podcast

By Nicolas Terry and Frank Pasquale

twihl 5x5This week we welcome Melinda J. Beeuwkes Buntin, Chair of the Department of Health Policy at Vanderbilt University’s School of Medicine. She previously served as Deputy Assistant Director for Health at the Congressional Budget Office (CBO), and worked at the Office of the National Coordinator for Health IT. At RAND, Melinda served as deputy director of RAND Health’s Economics, Financing, and Organization Program and co-director of the Bing Center for Health Economics. Her research at RAND focused on insurance benefit design, provider payment, and the care use and needs of the elderly. For the lightning round, Nic discussed technological improvement of decisionmaking, both for consumers and doctors. Nic also covered CMS’s rejection of Ohio’s request for a new section 1115 demonstration (which would have charged “premiums, regardless of income, to the 600,000 individuals in Ohio’s new adult group, as well as hundreds of thousands of low income parents, foster care youth, and beneficiaries with breast and cervical cancer”). Frank offered a counterintuitive look at the EpiPen and the present technocrat rage to privatize the VA. During the conversation, we covered some topics in CBO modeling, including Melinda’s recent paper on changes in spending by age of beneficiary. Frank mentioned some general concerns about CBO’s modeling raised by Federal Reserve economists, the GAO, Tim Westmoreland (in 2008 and 2007), Maggie Mahar, Timothy Jost, and Bruce Vladeck. We look forward to more conversations on the nature of health cost projections!

The Week in Health Law Podcast from Frank Pasquale and Nicolas Terry is a commuting-length discussion about some of the more thorny issues in Health Law & Policy. Subscribe at iTunes, listen at Stitcher Radio, Tunein and Podbean, or search for The Week in Health Law in your favorite podcast app. Show notes and more are at TWIHL.com. If you have comments, an idea for a show or a topic to discuss you can find us on twitter @nicolasterry @FrankPasquale @WeekInHealthLaw

Subscribe to TWIHL here!

NEXT MONTH (10/24): Health Care after the Election

presidential_nominees_slideHealth Care after the Election
October 24, 2016 12:00 PM
Wasserstein Hall, Milstein West AB (2019)
Harvard Law School, 1585 Massachusetts Ave., Cambridge, MA

Description

As we approach the 2016 presidential election and change of administration, there are many questions about the future of health policy that the 45th President and Congress will have to address starting in 2017. This event brings together health care experts from both sides of the aisle to discuss what health care will – and should – look like under the next administration.

Possible topics for discussion include:

  • The Affordable Care Act
  • Drug pricing
  • Delivery system reform
  • Innovation and research funding/NIH
  • Mental health
  • Public health

Continue reading

J. B. Silvers on ‘The Week in Health Law’ Podcast

By Nicolas Terry and Frank Pasquale

Subscribe to TWIHL here!
twihl 5x5

We welcomed J. B. Silvers to the podcast this week. J. B. is the John R. Mannix Medical Mutual of Ohio Professor of Health Care Finance, and Professor of Banking and Finance, at the Weatherhead School of Management, with a joint appointment in the Case Western Reserve University School of Medicine.

We asked J. B. many questions about the state of the ACA, hospitals’ adaptation to the rapidly changing policy environment, and ongoing worries about a death spiral on the exchanges. He offered refreshing and insightful perspectives on a range of live controversies in health care finance.

J. B. has served on committees at the National Academies and several national and state commissions. Until recently, he was a board member (12 years) and treasurer of the Joint Committee on Accreditation of Healthcare Organizations (TJC/JCAHO) and a board member of SummaCare Insurance Company (14 years). For seven years Silvers was a commissioner on the Prospective Payment Assessment Commission (now MedPAC) advising Congress on Medicare payment. From 1997 to 2000, while on leave, he served as President and CEO of QualChoice Health Plan and Insurance Company. He currently is vice chair of the board at MetroHealth Medical Center.

The Week in Health Law Podcast from Frank Pasquale and Nicolas Terry is a commuting-length discussion about some of the more thorny issues in Health Law & Policy. Subscribe at iTunes, listen at Stitcher Radio, Tunein and Podbean, or search for The Week in Health Law in your favorite podcast app. Show notes and more are at TWIHL.com. If you have comments, an idea for a show or a topic to discuss you can find us on twitter @nicolasterry @FrankPasquale @WeekInHealthLaw

Medical Malpractice Under a National Health System and the ACA

By Matthew H. H. Young

What will happen to the current medical malpractice system under a single-payer system?

To answer this question, I started by looking at the information provided by Physicians for a National Health Program, whose mission is to replace the ACA (Affordable Care Act) with single-payer. On their website under Single-Payer FAQs, it says:

What will happen to malpractice costs under national health insurance?

They will fall dramatically, for several reasons. First, about one-fourth of all malpractice awards go to pay present and future medical costs (e.g. for infants born with serious disabilities). Single payer national health insurance will eliminate the need for these awards. Second, many claims arise from a lack of communication between doctor and patient (e.g. in the Emergency Department). Miscommunication/mistakes are heightened under the present system because physicians don’t have continuity with their patients (to know their prior medical history, establish therapeutic trust, etc) and patients aren’t allowed to choose and keep the doctors and other caregivers they know and trust (due to insurance arrangements). Single payer improves quality in many ways, but in particular by facilitating long-term, continuous relationships with caregivers. For details on how single payer can improve the quality of health care, see “A Better Quality Alternative: Single Payer National Health Insurance.” For these and other reasons, malpractice costs in three nations with single payer are much lower than in the United States, and we would expect them to fall dramatically here. For details, see “Medical Liability in Three Single-Payer Countries” paper by Clara Felice and Litsa Lambkros.

Let me address the most salient part of the above argument, which states that the significant burden of malpractice recoveries composed of future medical costs will be alleviated because all individuals will be insured. Continue reading

Ambulances are Monopolies — and They Should Be Regulated Accordingly

By Shailin Thomas

You go to your local urgent care with a headache and a fever, and the doctor suggests a trip to the hospital for further evaluation — just to make sure there isn’t anything serious causing your symptoms. She offers an ambulance, and you accept. You could probably walk or Uber, but you’re not feeling well, and the doctor has offered to arrange the ride. Why not?

This was the story of Joanne Freedman. She didn’t think too much about it, until she received a $900 bill for the two-block ambulance ride she took to the hospital. While Joanne’s experience was particularly egregious, it is not wholly uncommon. Ambulance pricing is one of the most variable and least transparent components of health care costs, with rides ranging from tens to thousands of dollars. This is in part because there are many ambulance providers, and they all have different relationships with different insurance companies. It’s also in part because ambulance rates are generally set according to the services the ambulance is equipped to provide, not necessarily the services actually provided. Some ambulance companies have contracts with municipalities that make them the only game in town, while others are in more diverse markets with multiple providers competing for patients. All this combines to create an incredibly complex industry with very little consistency from ambulance to ambulance.

But is this disjointed, free-market system the best way to structure emergency transportation? The arguments underlying the justification of a free, unregulated market hinge on the ability of consumers to police the industry through choice. If the seller of a good sets the price too high, consumers will buy from a different seller until she brings the price down to what consumers are willing to pay.  This is, in theory, what allows markets to find the right prices for goods and services more efficiently than any government agency or regulator ever could. Continue reading

Drug Pricing, Shame, and Shortages

By Nicholson Price

Drug prices have been making waves in the news recently.  The most recent case is the huge price hikes of the EpiPen, which provides potentially life-saving automatic epinephrine injections to those with severe allergies.  Mylan, which makes the EpiPen, has raised its price some 450% over the last several years.  The EpiPen is a particularly problematic—and media-friendly—story because the emblematic use case is the kid in school who can’t breathe because she came into contact with peanuts.  Jacking up the price on something that’s not optional—for parents and for schools—seems heartless.  Thoughtful pieces have pointed out how the EpiPen price increases demonstrate problems with our health care system and drug/device approval system in general.

Other big recent cases that have hit the news include huge increases in the price of insulin, and, of course, Turing Pharmaceuticals’/Martin Shkreli’s ~5000% price hike on the drug Daraprim.  The EpiPen and Daraprim are especially notable because patents mostly aren’t involved—the effective monopoly appears to come from the delay or challenge in getting generic products approved by FDA (although the EpiPen itself also seems tough to make).  And, of course, drug prices aren’t regulated in the US the way they are in much of the world.

These stories seem crazy, cruel, and fascinating.  And they raise (for me, anyway) the question: what’s changed?  This seems like a relatively new phenomenon.  But FDA’s had a backlog for a while, and drug prices have long been unregulated. Continue reading

Please, Boston Nonprofit Hospitals, Can’t You Join Forces Instead Of Competing?

[Crosspost that originally appeared on WBUR’s CommonHealth]

By Michael Anne Kyle and Lauren Taylor

Here in Boston, cooperation between health care providers is a fraught issue.

Competition is fierce among local, not-for-profit teaching hospitals, and the idea of collaboration brings to mind collusion, mergers and monopolies.

Unfortunately, these concerns may be keeping Boston hospitals from pursuing cost-effective strategies to meet federal tax-exemption requirements and improve community health. Over the next year, each of Boston’s 12 hospitals will have to conduct a community health needs assessment (CHNA) to retain their tax-free status. New requirements in the Affordable Care Act specifically encourage collaboration between hospitals and with other health care agencies, such as public health departments.

We argue that doing one, citywide CHNA presents a rare opportunity for high-value, low-commitment coordination among Boston hospitals. Continue reading

Income-Scaling of Cost-Sharing Gains Traction

With 148,000 members, the American College of Physicians (ACP) is the largest medical-speciality organization.  This summer, its board released a new report on the growing financial burdens faced by patients who enjoy health insurance but are nonetheless exposed to unbearably large costs for healthcare.  At the end of the day, cost-sharing is just the absence of insurance for those costs.

ACP calls for a range of reforms, including “income-adjusted cost-sharing approaches that reduce or directly subsidize the expected out-of-pocket contribution of lower-income workers to avoid creating a barrier to their obtaining needed care.”  As I have argued, the Affordable Care Act includes income-based subsidies for cost-sharing in the Marketplaces, but these are currently being challenged in court, and do not apply to the employer-based system or Medicare, which together cover the vast majority of patients.

Hillary Clinton has also advanced a plan to create progressive refundable tax credits for people who spend more than 5% of their income out-of-pocket.   The advantage of such a tax-based approach is that it reaches patients regardless of where they get their insurance (except for Medicare, which is excluded).  The disadvantage is that it leaves people in a state of financial insecurity until they get their refunds.  A better approach would scale cost-sharing exposure in the first place, a power that I have suggested is already available under Federal law and which is self-funding.

CALL FOR ABSTRACTS! 2017 Annual Conference, “Transparency in Health & Health Care: Legal & Ethical Possibilities & Limits”

Medical care prices against a white background

The Petrie-Flom Center for Health Law Policy, Biotechnology, and Bioethics at Harvard Law School is pleased to announce plans for our 2017 annual conference, entitled: Transparency in Health and Health Care: Legal and Ethical Possibilities and Limits.

Transparency is a relatively new concept to the world of health and health care, considering that just a few short decades ago we were still in the throes of a “doctor-knows-best” model. Today, however, transparency is found on almost every short list of solutions to a variety of health policy problems, ranging from conflicts of interest to rising drug costs to promoting efficient use of health care resources, and more. Doctors are now expected to be transparent about patient diagnoses and treatment options, hospitals are expected to be transparent about error rates, insurers about policy limitations, companies about prices, researchers about data, and policymakers about priorities and rationales for health policy intervention. But a number of important legal and ethical questions remain. For example, what exactly does transparency mean in the context of health, who has a responsibility to be transparent and to whom, what legal mechanisms are there to promote transparency, and what legal protections are needed for things like privacy, intellectual property, and the like?  More specifically, when can transparency improve health and health care, and when is it likely to be nothing more than platitude?

This conference, and anticipated edited volume, will aim to: (1) identify the various thematic roles transparency has been called on to play in American health policy, and why it has emerged in these spaces; (2) understand when, where, how, and why transparency may be a useful policy tool in relation to health and health care, what it can realistically be expected to achieve, and when it is unlikely to be successful, including limits on how patients and consumers utilize information even when we have transparency; (3) assess the legal and ethical issues raised by transparency in health and health care, including obstacles and opportunities; (4) learn from comparative examples of transparency, both in other sectors and outside the United States.  In sum, we hope to reach better understandings of this health policy buzzword so that transparency can be utilized as a solution to pressing health policy issues where appropriate, while recognizing its true limitations.

Call for Abstracts

We welcome submissions on both the broad conceptual questions described above and more specific policy issues, including: Continue reading

Learning from mistakes in the NHS: a special report by the Parliamentary and Health Service Ombudsman (PHSO) into how the NHS failed to investigate properly the death of a three-year-old child.

By John Tingle

In the UK where health is concerned money is a particularly poor compensator for the loss of a limb, faculty or even a family member. In my experience patients who have suffered adverse health incidents, negligence, more often than not, are not primarily motivated by obtaining monetary compensation. They seek in the main an explanation of what occurred and why, an apology and an assurance that what happened will not happen to anybody else; that lessons have been learned.

The NHS (National Health Service) for decades has been unable to provide a satisfactory complaints and patient adverse incident investigation service which provides these outcomes generally. More often than not patients have to resort to complaining or beginning litigation in order to find out what happened and why and the process that they have to embark on can alienate them even more as they soon hit major and seemingly unsurmountable obstacles. The NHS maintains a defensive and blame ridden culture when errors happen as the terrible events of Mid Staffordshire revealed.

The report Continue reading

NOW AVAILABLE FOR PRE-ORDER! Nudging Health: Health Law and Behavioral Economics

This volume, edited by I. Glenn Cohen, Holly Fernandez Lynch, and Christopher T. Robertson, stems from the Petrie-Flom Center’s 2014 Annual Conference “Behavioral Economics, Law, and Health Policy.” Pre-order your copy today!

Nudging HealthBehavioral nudges are everywhere: calorie counts on menus, automated text reminders to encourage medication adherence, a reminder bell when a driver’s seatbelt isn’t fastened. Designed to help people make better health choices, these reminders have become so commonplace that they often go unnoticed. In Nudging Health, forty-five experts in behavioral science and health policy from across academia, government, and private industry come together to explore whether and how these tools are effective in improving health outcomes.

Behavioral science has swept the fields of economics and law through the study of nudges, cognitive biases, and decisional heuristics—but it has only recently begun to impact the conversation on health care. Nudging Health wrestles with some of the thorny philosophical issues, legal limits, and conceptual questions raised by behavioral science as applied to health law and policy. The volume frames the fundamental issues surrounding health nudges by addressing ethical questions. Does cost-sharing for health expenditures cause patients to make poor decisions? Is it right to make it difficult for people to opt out of having their organs harvested for donation when they die? Are behavioral nudges paternalistic? The contributors examine specific applications of behavioral science, including efforts to address health care costs, improve vaccination rates, and encourage better decision-making by physicians. They wrestle with questions regarding the doctor-patient relationship and defaults in healthcare while engaging with larger, timely questions of healthcare reform.

Nudging Health is the first multi-voiced assessment of behavioral economics and health law to span such a wide array of issues—from the Affordable Care Act to prescription drugs.

Read the introduction on SSRN and pre-order your book now!

UPDATED – Dental Hygiene Practitioners: Why they’re needed in Massachusetts, and why the amendment failed

Special guest post from Kelly Vitzthumoral health policy analyst at Health Care For All, a Massachusetts health policy and consumer advocacy organization. This post has been updated to reflect the non-inclusion of the Dental Hygiene Practitioner amendment in the final version of Massachusetts’ FY 2017 budget.

Former U.S. Surgeon General David Satcher described poor oral health as “a Silent Epidemic.” Oral health diseases are by and large preventable, and yet they are incredibly widespread. Disadvantaged and marginalized populations suffer disproportionately from poor oral health, and children are especially vulnerable. Many low-income individuals and families are priced out of needed care and struggle to find providers who accept Medicaid.

Though Massachusetts is a leader in health care and health reform, oral health is still often overlooked in state health policy discussions. Though MassHealth – Massachusetts’ Medicaid program – covers 40% of the state’s children, most dentists do not accept it. A shocking proportion of children have untreated oral decay, which affects their ability to eat, learn, and play. A full tenth of the population currently lives in a federally-designated Dental Health Professional Shortage Area (DHPSA), and emergency department visits for preventable dental conditions cost the state millions annually. Continue reading

General Medical Practice: Complaint Handling Issues

By John Tingle

There is a new report from Health Service Ombudsman (HSO) on GP (General Medical Practitioner) complaint handling and major failings are revealed. The HSO makes the final decisions on complaints that have not been resolved in England and lies at the apex of the NHS complaints system. The report reveals that some GP practices are failing to handle patient complaints properly. The report is based on evidence from HSO casework files and intelligence gathered by the Care Quality Commission (CQC) , NHS England and Healthwatch England. One hundred and thirty-seven closed complaint cases from November 2014 – November 2015 were analysed. General medical practice forms 90% of all NHS interactions with the general public.The quality of complaint handling by GPs was found to be highly variable:

“…over half of the cases were either good (46%) or outstanding (9%). However, over a third required improvement (36%) and a tenth were inadequate (10%) (p7).”

The report states that there are five areas where general practice has the most scope for improvement: Continue reading

REGISTER NOW! Aligning Policy and People: Why the Time is Right to Transform Advanced Care

hands_Ingram Publishing_slideJune 21, 2016, 9am – 1pm

Wasserstein Hall, Milstein East (2036), Harvard Law School, 1585 Massachusetts Ave., Cambridge, MA

This event is free and open to the public, but seating is limited. Register now!

Description

Please join us for the inaugural event of the Project on Advanced Care and Health Policy, a collaboration between the Coalition for Advanced Care (C-TAC) and the Petrie-Flom Center for Health Law Policy, Biotechnology, and Bioethics at Harvard Law School. This conference will feature policymakers, thought leaders, family caregivers, clinicians, consumer advocates, and others working to identify the timely, practical, and actionable opportunities to transform care for people with advanced illness nearing end-of-life.

Confirmed Speakers

Continue reading

Making Big Data Inclusive

Guest post by Sarah Elizabeth Malanga, Fellow, Regulatory Science Program, James E. Rogers College of Law, University of Arizona, based on her presentation at the Petrie-Flom Center’s 2016 Annual Conference, “Big Data, Health Law, and Bioethics,” held on May 6, 2016, at Harvard Law School.

Cross-posted from the Hastings Center’s Bioethics Forum.

Big Data, which is derived from a multitude of sources including, social media, “wearables,” electronic health records, and health insurances claims, is increasingly being used in health care and it can potentially improve the way medical professionals diagnose and treat illnesses.

But what happens when Big Data only captures a snapshot of the population, rather than an overall picture of the population as a whole? The sources that generate Big Data – the Internet and credit card use, electronic health records, health insurance claims – are not utilized by everyone. Certain demographics may be missing from or underrepresented in Big Data because they do not own smartphones, have access to the Internet, or visit doctors on a regular basis because they lack health insurance. These sectors of the population disproportionately include low-income individuals, minority groups such as blacks and Hispanics, and the elderly. Continue reading

Radical Redesign of Health Care and Its Implications for Policy: A Lecture by Donald Berwick, MD, Administrator of the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services (2010-2011)

stethoscope with puzzleSpecial Lecture to Open ASLME’s 39th Annual Health Law Professors Conference

June 2, 2016, 6:00pm

Wasserstein Hall, Milstein East (2036), Harvard Law School, 1585 Massachusetts Ave., Cambridge, MA

Reception to follow.

Free and open to the public, but seating is limited. Please register for the lecture and reception here.

Introduction by Martha Minow, Morgan and Helen Chu Dean and Professor, Harvard Law School

Moderator: I. Glenn Cohen, Professor of Law and Faculty Director of the Petrie-Flom Center, Harvard Law School

MAGAZINE- 12/17/03; Boston- Dr. Donald Berwick poses for a portrait at his Boston organization The Institute of Healthcare Improvement. Photo by Laurie Swope (DIGITAL IMAGE)

Donald Berwick, MD, is one of the United States’ leading advocates for high-quality healthcare. From July 2010 to December 2011, he served as the Administrator of the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services. For 22 years prior to that, he was the founding CEO – and now President Emeritus and Senior Fellow – of the Institute for Healthcare Improvement, a nonprofit dedicated to improving healthcare around the world. A pediatrician by background, he has also served on the faculties of the Harvard Medical School and the Harvard School of Public Health.

Continue reading

REGISTER NOW: Aligning Policy and People: Why the Time is Right to Transform Advanced Care

hands_Ingram Publishing_slideJune 21, 2016, 9am – 1pm

Wasserstein Hall, Milstein East (2036), Harvard Law School, 1585 Massachusetts Ave., Cambridge, MA

This event is free and open to the public, but seating is limited. Register now!

Description

Please join us for the inaugural event of the Project on Advanced Care and Health Policy, a collaboration between the Coalition for Advanced Care (C-TAC) and the Petrie-Flom Center for Health Law Policy, Biotechnology, and Bioethics at Harvard Law School. This conference will feature policymakers, thought leaders, family caregivers, clinicians, consumer advocates, and others working to identify the timely, practical, and actionable opportunities to transform care for people with advanced illness nearing end-of-life.

Confirmed Speakers

Continue reading

TWIHL Special: Wendy Mariner Analyzes the New Wellness Regulations

By Nicolas Terry and Frank Pasquale

twihl 5x5A special TWIHL episode with analysis of the new EEOC regulations under the ADA and GINA on Employer Wellness Plans. Nic is joined by Professor Wendy Mariner. Professor Mariner is the Edward R. Utley Professor of Health Law at Boston University School of Public Health, Professor of Law at Boston University School of Law, Professor at Boston University School of Medicine, and Co-Director of the J.D.-M.P.H. joint degree program, and a member of the faculty of the Center for Health Law, Ethics and Human Rights at BUSPH. Professor Mariner’s research focuses on laws governing health risks, including social and personal responsibility for risk creation, health insurance systems, implementation of the Affordable Care Act, ERISA, health information privacy, and population health policy.

Our discussion concentrated on the ADA regulation and examined how the agency responded to comments (including ours), the concept of voluntariness, the status of EEOC v. Flambeau, Inc., data protection (including issues raised when  employers research the health of their employees), and the policy flaws in the wellness space.The Week in Health Law Podcast from Frank Pasquale and Nicolas Terry is a commuting-length discussion about some of the more thorny issues in Health Law & Policy.

Subscribe at iTunes, listen at Stitcher RadioTunein and Podbean, or search for The Week in Health Law in your favorite podcast app. Show notes and more are at TWIHL.com. If you have comments, an idea for a show or a topic to discuss you can find us on twitter @nicolasterry @FrankPasquale @WeekInHealthLaw

SCOTUS and More Surprises on Zubik

After the 2014 SCOTUS decision in Hobby Lobby, in which a closely-held for-profit employer won the argument that the federal Religious Freedom Restoration Act protected it against enforcement of the government’s contraceptives coverage mandate, all eyes have been on what SCOTUS would do in response to a challenge to the very same accommodation it toyed with as a less restrictive alternative in that case.  The Court agreed to hear a consolidated set of challenges to the accommodation brought by several religious non-profit employers who seek outright exemption from the mandate (under the case name Zubik et al.) – but then Justice Scalia passed away, leaving the Court with the unpalatable prospect of a 4-4 decision.

SCOTUS has pulled a few tricks out of its hat to avoid that possibility.  First, it surprised us by seeking supplemental briefs on a possible compromise solution, which would ostensibly allow women to access contraceptives (as the government desires) while not burdening the religious employers (as they desire).  The parties basically responded, as politely as would be expected, that some compromise was indeed possible – but not on terms the other could or would actually accept.  Nonetheless, today, SCOTUS surprised us again – seeing enough glimmer of a possible compromise to decline to decide the cases on the merits, instead returning them to the lower courts to work something out.

So what does that mean?  In my view, count it as a win for the government.  Eight out of nine circuit courts ruled in the government’s favor below, holding that the accommodation it had already offered did not substantially burden employers’ religious beliefs – which means that RFRA’s further protection, demanding a compelling government interest satisfied in the least restrictive way, does not even get triggered. These courts have no reason to change that determination now.  Even if there is a compromise that would be less burdensome on religious employers (which I don’t think there is), such a compromise is not required under RFRA unless there is a substantial burden.  And SCOTUS hasn’t said there is.

What we have here is, ironically, precisely the same result we’d have had if SCOTUS had issued a 4-4 decision.  The lower court opinions will almost certainly stand, and we’ll likely still have a bit of a circuit split. So now, we wait on a new president.  The Donald would presumably destroy the ACA/mandate entirely, whereas Hillary would hopefully be able to deliver a ninth justice that will recognize RFRA’s reasonable limits.  Religious freedom is critically important, but so too is accepting the government’s dramatic efforts to be accommodating, short of letting every religious believer be an island unto himself.