Judge blocks Obamacare coverage mandate for preventive care, including PrEP

By Brendan Pierson

(Reuters) -A federal judge in Texas on Thursday blocked Obamacare’s mandate that health insurance plans cover preventive care, including pre-exposure prophylaxis against HIV (PrEP) and screenings for cancer, diabetes and depression at no cost to patients

U.S. District Judge Reed O’Connor in Fort Worth, Texas, previously found that the PrEP mandate violated a federal religious freedom law and that other preventive care mandates were based on recommendations by an illegally appointed task force.

The judge has now blocked the federal government from enforcing the mandates, a victory for conservative businesses and individuals that sued to challenge them in 2020.

The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, which administers the Affordable Care Act, as Obamacare is formally called, did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

The legal challenge was brought by eight individuals and two businesses, all from Texas. They argued that the free PrEP requirement requires business owners and consumers to pay for services that “encourage homosexual behavior, prostitution, sexual promiscuity and intravenous drug use” despite their religious beliefs.

They also said that the advisory body that recommends what preventive care should be covered, the Preventive Services Task Force, is illegal because its members are not directly appointed by the president, which they argue is required by the U.S. Constitution. The task force’s recommendations automatically become mandatory under the Affordable Care Act.

The conservative America First Legal Foundation is helping to represent the plaintiffs. The group was founded by Stephen Miller, who served as an adviser to Republican President Donald Trump.

Major medical groups last year warned that a sweeping ruling like the one O’Connor issued on Thursday could jeopardize access to preventive care for millions of people and worsen patient outcomes.

O’Connor previously drew attention in 2018 for ruling the entire Affordable Care Act, the signature achievement of Democratic then-President Barack Obama, was unconstitutional in a decision that was later overturned.

The PrEP drugs approved in the United States to prevent HIV infection, which can cause AIDS, are made by Gilead Sciences Inc and by ViiV Healthcare, a joint venture of GSK Plc, Pfizer Inc and Shionogi & Co Ltd. The companies did not immediately comment.

(Reporting By Brendan Pierson in New York; Editing by Mark Porter and Jonathan Oatis)