About Wendy Parmet

Associate Dean for Academic Affairs and Matthews University Distinguished Professor of Law at Northeastern University School of Law

McCullen and New York Statewide Coalition: The Erosion of Public Health as a Legal Norm

At first glance, last Thursday’s decisions by the Supreme Court in McCullen v. Coakley and the New York Court of Appeals in New York Statewide Coalition of Hispanic Chambers of Commerce v. New York City Department of Health and Mental Hygiene, have little in common. McCullen, which struck down a Massachusetts law establishing a 35 foot buffer zone around reproductive health clinics, was a First Amendment case that dealt with the always contentious issue of abortion. In contrast, N.Y. Statewide Coalition, which upheld a lower court decision striking down a regulation of the New York City Board of Health barring the sale of large portions of sugary soda, was decided on state administrative law grounds, with the court finding that the Board exceeded its authority.

On closer inspection, however, the two cases share several features in addition to their date of decision. One is the failure to give substantial weight to the state’s interest in protection health. In his opinion for the Court in McCullen, Chief Justice Roberts accepted that the buffer zone law was content neutral and therefore not subject to strict scrutiny. Nevertheless, a unanimous Court held that the Massachusetts law was not narrowly tailored to serve the government interests of protecting public safety and access to health care. In reaching this decision, the Court focused on the “toll” that the buffer zone placed on the abortion opponents who tried to dissuade woman from having abortion, rather than the impact of the lack of such a zone on woman seeking reproductive health care. Equally important, the Court showed no willingness to defer to the state’s contentions that alternative regulatory approaches had proved unsatisfactory. Rather the Court insisted that given “the vital First Amendment interests at stake, it is not enough for Massachusetts simply to say that other approaches have not worked.”

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CONFERENCE – CLASHING RIGHTS & REPRODUCTIVE AUTONOMY

Join us at Northeastern University School of Law at 1 p.m. on April 25, 2014 as leading academics and practitioners discuss the tensions between free speech and reproductive rights.

For more information, see http://www.northeastern.edu/law/academics/institutes/health-law/events/clashing-rights/

The Big Gulp Wins: Public Health Loses

Public health law took another hit this week. In a unanimous decision (starting on p. 22), the Appellate Division of the New York Supreme Court affirmed a trial court’s earlier ruling striking down the New York City Board of Health’s ban on the sale of large sugary drinks.

In an opinion authored by Justice Dianne T. Renwick, the appeals court ruled that the Board of Health had “failed to act within the bounds of its lawfully delegated authority” in promulgating the so-called soda ban. Relying primarily on the Court of Appeals’ decision in Boreali v. Axelrod, the Appellate Division concluded that the soda ban was unlawful because 1) in framing the regulation, the board took into account factors other than public health; 2) the regulation was not an act of interstitial rule making; 3) the regulation concerned an issue that the legislature had considered and had failed to reach a decision; and 4) the regulations did not require expertise in the field of public health.

Although the Appeals Court did not repeat the trial court’s spurious suggestion that the board’s powers were greater when applied to infectious diseases than chronic diseases, it reiterated the erroneous belief in a binary distinction between public health factors and social and economic factors. In the court’s view, the only factors a health department should consider are “health factors,” which seem to exist totally apart from the social and economic environment. Any consideration of social and economic factors, including as the court noted, consideration of behavioral economics, is outside the scope and beyond the expertise of public health.

This dichotomization of public health and “non-health factors” relies on a false understanding of public health expertise. Continue reading

The First Amendment Meets Public Health Again — The US AID Case

Sometimes it seems as if the First Amendment is the leading legal threat to public health. Not today. In Agency for International Development v. Alliance for Open Society International the Supreme Court in a 6-2 decision struck down on First Amendment ground the so-called “anti-prostitution pledge” imposed by § 7631(f) of the  Leadership Act which prohibited the award of anti-HIV grants to groups or organizations that do “not have a policy explicitly opposing prostitution and sex trafficking” constituted an unconstitutional condition. Critical to the Chief Justice Roberts’ opinion was the fact that § 7631(f) did not simply limit grantees’ ability to use federal funds to support prostitution. Rather, it compelled a “grant recipient to adopt a particular belief as a condition of funding.”  According to the Court, the government can limit what grantees do with federal funds, but it cannot restrict what they believe.

Although the Court ‘s opinion focused on core First Amendment issues, rather than the public health impact of the anti-prostitution pledge, its decision should remind us of the complex and sometimes ambivalent relationship between public health and the First Amendment. Since the early years of the HIV epidemic, the First Amendment has been a crucial public health ally, limiting government’s ability to censor controversial but critical public health information. In many other cases, however, such as those challenging regulations aimed at tobacco or pharmaceutical advertising, a robust interpretation of the First Amendment seems to hinder public health protection. For public health law advocates, a key question is whether the First Amendment can be interpreted so as to protect health in both sets of circumstances. Equally critical is understanding how we can achieve public health goals without relying on the regulation of speech. Alliance for Open Society may offer some clues, but it clearly does not provide the answers.

Court Enjoins N.Y. Ban on Large Sugary Drinks

New York State Supreme Court’s Justice Milton A. Tingling’s decision last night in New York Statewide Coalition of Hispanic Chambers of Commerce v. New York City Dpeartment of Health and Mental Hygiene, to enjoin New York City’s controversial ban on the sale of large sugary beverages should not have been surprising. As Scott Burris has noted here, “the public health side has been getting killed wherever law is made.” Defeats for new public health regulations, especially new regulations that impinge against powerful economic interests, are becoming the norm.

Still, there were some surprising and troubling, from a public health perspective, notes in Justice Tingling’s opinion, which relied heavily on Boreali v. Axelrod, a 1987 opinion by the New York Court of Appeals striking down a ban on indoor smoking, to find that the Department lacked authority to issue the regulation.

According to Justice Tingling, Boreali required the court to consider four factors including whether the regulation was based on matters beyond its stated purpose, and whether the regulation was “created on a clean slate thereby creating its own comprehensive set of rules without the benefit of legislative guidance.”   In looking to whether the ban on sugary sodas was based on factors other than its stated purpose, Justice Tingle noted among other things that the Department had cited the “enormous toll” that obesity places on the “economic health” of New Yorkers. To Justice Tingle any regard for the economic consequences of obesity demonstrated that the Department based its regulation “on economic and political concerns” outside the scope of its authority. Thus the very fact that the Department considered the economic consequences of the issue it addressed, a consideration that many scholars would claim is a critical component of sound regulatory policy, helped to doom the ban on large sodas. Would the Court, one wonders, have been more approving of the regulation if the Department had failed to show that obesity had significant economic consequences?  Somehow I suspect not.

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The ACA’s Immigration Quirk

I was amused but not surprised to read that in announcing her support for expanding Arizona’s Medicaid program, Governor Jan Brewer pointed to the fact that without the expansion, only non-citizens with incomes under the poverty level would be eligible for insurance under the ACA. What Brewer didn’t say, was that the ACA’s apparent preference for non-citizens results from precisely the type of anti-immigrant laws with which Gov. Brewer is usually associated.

 In 1996, shortly after California passed the notorious Proposition 187 which denied state public benefits to undocumented immigrants, Congress enacted the Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Reconciliation Act, better known as the Welfare Reform Act.  Among other things, this law imposes a 5 year waiting period before most legal permanent residents can enroll in the federal Medicaid program. The law also barred many other immigrants who are lawfully residing within the U.S. from Medicaid altogether.

The ACA did not repeal the provisions in the Welfare Reform Act limiting immigrants’ access to Medicaid. Instead, Congress sought to provide coverage to lawfully residing immigrants by permitting those with incomes under 100% of the Federal Poverty Level to receive subsidies to purchase insurance on the exchanges. Those subsidies were not necessary for citizens with such low incomes because Congress assumed that they would be brought into the Medicaid program.

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Public Health & The First Amendment – AID v. Alliance for Open Society

The Supreme Court’s decision last week to grant cert in AID v. Alliance for Open Society International, demonstrates anew the importance of First Amendment jurisprudence to public health protection. In recent years, it has sometimes seemed as if the First Amendment has become the most significant legal obstacle to effective public health protection through law. In cases such as Lorillard Tobacco, Thompson v. Western States Medical Center (the compounding pharmacy case), and Sorrell v. IMS Health, Inc., the Supreme Court has found that First Amendment protections for commercial speech trump public health protection, a view that the D.C. Circuit seemed to endorse when it ruled last summer in R.J. Reynolds that the graphic warning labels required by the Tobacco Control Act violated the First Amendment Rights of cigarette companies.

Yet sometimes the First Amendment helps to advance the cause of public health, particularly by limiting the reach of laws that are designed to restrict an open and informed approach to sexual and reproductive. US AIDS offers one such example. In that case, plaintiff NGOs challenged a provision in the federal Leadership Act, 22 U.S.C. § 7631(f),  that required them to adopt a policy explicitly opposing prostitution in order to receive federal funds available to fight HIV/AIDs, tuberculosis, and malaria.  The plaintiffs argued that the Act constituted an unconstitutional condition and violated their First Amendment rights by compelling them to adopt the government’s viewpoint regarding prostitution. The Second Circuit, in an opinion by Judge Parker, concluded that the plaintiffs were likely to prevail on the merits and granted them a preliminary injunction.

Now the Supreme Court will reconsider the issue. Public health advocates are likely to weigh in and argue for the widest possible protection for their own advocacy.  In doing so, they might want to keep in mind the threat that the First Amendment poses for public health in other contexts, especially in commercial speech cases.  And they will certainly want to think about how they can convince courts to value public health when deciding First Amendment cases. Figuring out how to do that — how to develop a First Amendment jurisprudence that is respectful of public health – just may be the most pressing challenge facing public health lawyers today.

Dreams Deferred

After the November election, President Obama’s executive order implementing parts of the so-called “Dream Act” was widely credited with shoring up his support within the Latino community.  Less often noted was his Administration’s decision to exclude the “Dreamers” from the benefits afforded by the Affordable Care Act.

Last August, the Center for Medicare Services (CMS) issued an interim final regulation stating that individuals who benefitted from the President’s program, more formally known as “Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals” or DACA, would not be considered “lawfully present” for purposes of eligibility to health benefits established by the Affordable Care Act, including the Pre-Existing Condition Insurance Plan and the subsidies and credits that will be available in 2014 to purchase insurance through the health insurance exchanges. Pre-Existing Condition Insurance Plan Program, 77 Fed. Reg. 52614-01 (Aug. 30, 2012) (to be codified 45 C.F.R. § 152.2), http://www.gpo.gov/fdsys/pkg/FR-2012-08-30/html/2012-21519.htm.

The impact of this little noticed determination is quite significant. Although most of the estimated 1.7 million DACA immigrants are healthy, because of their age (under 30), many lack access to employer-provided health insurance. Moreover, if as expected, employers begin to shift their health insurance programs to the ACA-created exchanges, DACA immigrants may find themselves barred from employer-provided plans, even though under the President’s executive order they have a legal right to work in the United States.

The insurance gap created by CMS’ determination that the DACA immigrants are not “lawfully present” in the U.S., a decision that is inconsistent with the Administration’s conclusion that other deferred action recipients are eligible for benefits established under the ACA, illuminates the critical relationship between immigration policy and health policy.  To a surprising degree, the health insurance access problem in the U.S. results from laws that bar immigrants (including many with Green Cards) from many government-supported health insurance programs, including Medicaid. In 2010, over 45 % of non-citizens were uninsured, as compared to less than 14 % of native-born Americans. Approximately 65 % of undocumented immigrants are believed to lack health insurance. The ACA is unlikely to reduce those rates, especially regarding undocumented immigrants. Neither, it is now seems, is DACA.