KFF Health News’ ‘What the Health?’: Waiting for SCOTUS

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Julie Rovner is chief Washington correspondent and host of KFF Health News’ weekly health policy news podcast, “What the Health?” A noted expert on health policy issues, Julie is the author of the critically praised reference book “Health Care Politics and Policy A to Z,” now in its third edition.

June means it’s time for the Supreme Court to render rulings on the biggest and most controversial cases of the term. This year, the court has two significant abortion-related cases: one involving the abortion pill mifepristone and the other regarding the conflict between a federal emergency care law and Idaho’s near-total abortion ban.

Also awaiting resolution is a case that could dramatically change how the federal government makes health care (and all other types of) policies by potentially limiting agencies’ authority in interpreting the details of laws through regulations. Rules stemming from the Affordable Care Act and other legislation could be affected.

In this special episode of “What the Health?”, Laurie Sobel, an associate director for women’s health policy at KFF, joins host Julie Rovner for a refresher on the cases, and a preview of how the justices might rule on them.

The cases highlighted in this episode:

Previous “What the Health?” coverage of these cases:

Where to find Supreme Court opinions as they are announced:

Click to open the Transcript

Transcript: Waiting for SCOTUS

[Editor’s note: This transcript was generated using both transcription software and a human’s light touch. It has been edited for style and clarity.]

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Julie Rovner: Hello, and welcome back to “What the Health?” I’m Julie Rovner, chief Washington correspondent for KFF Health News. We’re taping this week on Wednesday, May 29, at 1 p.m. As always, news happens fast and things might’ve changed by the time you hear this. So here we go.

Because it’s a holiday week and health news is a little bit slow, we’re going to do something a little different. It’s about to be June, and that means the Supreme Court is going to issue opinions in some of the biggest cases argued this past term, including two abortion-related cases and one that could literally disrupt the way the entire federal government operates. I’m not sure I remember all the details of these cases, even though we have talked about them all on the podcast. So I’ve asked someone here to remind us what they’re about and give us a preview of how the court might rule in some of them. Laurie Sobel is associate director for women’s health policy here at KFF, and one of our top in-house legal experts. Laurie, welcome to “What the Health?” Thanks for joining us.

Laurie Sobel: Hi, Julie. It’s great to be here.

Rovner: So I thought we’d take the cases in the order they were argued before the court, although I know that’s not necessarily the order that we will see the opinions issued in. First up: In January, the justices heard arguments in two cases about, of all things, herring fishing. Loper Bright Enterprises v. Raimondo and Relentless Inc. v. Department of Commerce. But these cases are about a lot more than herring and could affect a lot more than the Department of Commerce, right?

Sobel: Absolutely. These cases are about what’s called the Chevron doctrine [deference], which requires courts to defer to an agency’s interpretation of a law when the law is silent or ambiguous and the agency’s interpretation is reasonable.

Rovner: And what would an example of that be?

Sobel: Oh, there’s many, many examples. Essentially, Congress doesn’t fill in the details of many laws, and they rely on agencies to fill in those details, assuming that the agency has the expertise to figure out what those details might be. And also, many times the details change as new scientific evidence becomes available or there’s changed circumstances, or there’s a pandemic or something in which the agency needs to respond to.

Rovner: This is basically the entire federal regulatory process we’re talking about here, right?

Sobel: That’s correct.

Rovner: And in health care, there’s a lot of places that regulation affects.

Sobel: Absolutely. So Congress relies on the agencies to implement laws, the ACA [Affordable Care Act], Medicare, Medicaid, CHIP [Children’s Health Insurance Program]. So there’s a lot in health care. In addition, Title X is regulated by the Office of Population Affairs, and those also have regulations. So overturning Chevron would make it very difficult for Congress to continue to rely on agencies to fill in these gaps and to react to real-time situations.

Rovner: And there’s private entities that get regulated, are freaked out by the possibility that they won’t be able to rely on the agencies either.

Sobel: Absolutely. So everything from payment rates to providers and hospitals to negotiating prescription drug prices for the Medicare program. The ACA, I think, has probably more regulations than most laws. And relationship — we’ll talk about the FDA [Food and Drug Administration] in the next case, but the FDA also sets out regulations as does CDC [Centers for Disease Control and Prevention], and we really rely on those agencies to have the scientific expertise to react to the situation. So if Congress has to either fill in all the gaps, which is by most people’s assessment impossible, it might really stall how things get implemented and/or create a whole lot of new litigation.

Rovner: And I would say it would give courts a whole lot more authority than they have now, right?

Sobel: Certainly. So right now, the rule is that the agency’s interpretation stands as long as the law is ambiguous or silent and the agency’s interpretation is reasonable. This would give that power back to the courts to then guess what Congress meant or to interpret what Congress meant.

Rovner: Somebody I was talking to about this case suggested that, I hadn’t really thought about before, that if Chevron were to get struck down, that those who had sued over regulations and lost might be able to go back and reopen those cases. I mean, it could just be a flood of litigation.

Sobel: Absolutely. And that came up during oral argument about what would that mean for all the settled cases. And both sides offered different interpretations with the solicitor general arguing that it would really open up this can of worms to tons of litigation, and the plaintiffs essentially saying, “No, no, no, we could let those all stand and just going forward, the Chevron deference would be undone.” And there were some hints that maybe some compromises like that between the justices as they were talking.

Rovner: Exactly. You’re anticipating my next question, which is did we get any hints from the oral arguments about where they might be going with this case? It’s hard to imagine them just completely overturning Chevron.

Sobel: It is hard to imagine, but there are some justices that have been known to wanting to overturn Chevron for quite some time. So in that category I would put Justices [Clarence] Thomas and [Samuel] Alito, as well as [Neil] Gorsuch, as justices that have really been critical of the Chevron deference. Justice [Brett] Kavanaugh highlighted that the rules change when administrations change, and so he tried to counter the argument that there’s a reliance on Chevron for stability. He said, “Wait, wait, wait a minute. Every time there’s a new president, the rules change. So what kind of stability is that?”

Chief Justice [John] Roberts and [Justice Amy Coney] Barrett were really harder to read, and that might be where the decision relies on, where they come out and whether or not they’re able to forge a compromise with the three liberal justices who indicated support for keeping Chevron; both because of precedent, as well as they pointed out examples where they said, “We’re not subject matter experts here. We don’t want to be making these decisions.” Justice [Elena] Kagan was talking about AI and how that would change, and “we really don’t want to be in the position of Justice Kagan figuring out how that should be regulated.”

Rovner: Well, that seems to be an excellent segue to the next case, which is an abortion case concerning the availability of the abortion pill mifepristone. The case, which was argued in March, is called Alliance for Hippocratic Medicine v. U.S. Food and Drug Administration. Let’s start, because it’s about to become important, with what is the Alliance for Hippocratic Medicine? And what did their members have against the abortion pill?

Sobel: Well, the Alliance for Hippocratic Medicine is a newly formed anti-abortion advocacy coalition. It was formed specifically for this litigation. And they contend that they have members, which are doctors and organizations and associations, in Texas and around the country, who have treated and will continue to treat people who have experienced a complication from medication abortion. So to be clear, none of their members prescribe mifepristone. They don’t believe in abortion. They don’t want to have anything to do with abortion. But their contention is that they are injured based upon having to divert their time and resources away from their regular patients when they have to treat somebody who has had a side effect from mifepristone. Similarly, the association and organizations contend that they’ve had to divert their time to educate people about the dangers of medication abortion.

Rovner: So those are the plaintiffs. And, as you mentioned, some of them are in Texas and they sued in Texas very specifically to get a certain judge, right?

Sobel: Yes, to get Judge [Matthew] Kacsmaryk, who is known for being friendly to these types of cases.

Rovner: So Judge Kacsmaryk, who as you say, is known to be friendly to these types of cases, originally ruled that mifepristone’s entire approval should be rescinded. It was approved in the year 2000, so it’s been on the market for quite a long time. But that’s actually not what’s on the table at the moment before the justices. Explain how we got there.

Sobel: So that decision was then appealed to the 5th Circuit, and the 5th Circuit said, “We’re not going to roll back the original approval of mifepristone to the year 2000, but instead we’ll roll back the requirements to 2011 and say that those are the rules that should be enforced, and that the FDA exceeded their authority in changing the rules since 2011.”

Rovner: And some of those changed rules basically made it easier to get, and you could use it a little bit later into pregnancy because it was found to be safe, right?

Sobel: Exactly. So what those new rules have done is said that you can use it up to 10 weeks instead of seven weeks, that you don’t have to be in person to receive it. So the newest rules have opened up the possibility of using it for telehealth abortion, and also for pharmacists prescribing it. And so if the Supreme Court were to affirm the 5th Circuit’s decision, that would eliminate these new protocols the FDA has established in removing the in-person dispensing requirement, permitting telehealth abortions, and establishing the process for pharmacies to become certified to dispense mifepristone. In addition, it would roll back the gestational ages you just said, from 10 weeks to seven weeks, which is significant because, according to the CDC data, more than 4 in 10 medication abortions occur at seven weeks or later.

Rovner: I was going to say, and yeah, this could be super disruptive. I mean medication abortion is now more than half of all abortions in this country.

Sobel: Oh, it’s two-thirds.

Rovner: So without banning it, making it harder to get could have a big impact.

Sobel: Oh, absolutely. Medication abortion now accounts for nearly two-thirds of all abortions, and telehealth abortions have become very common, from the latest data that we have from WeCount, 1 in 5 abortions was provided via telehealth in December of 2023. So that’s one in all abortions, not one in medication abortions. So that’s quite a big number.

Rovner: Now, this case, even though it could be very disruptive to abortion, is about a whole lot more than abortion. Drugmakers in general seem pretty concerned by the idea of judges making scientific decisions that overrule the FDA. This hearkens back to the last case we talked about, right?

Sobel: Oh, absolutely. So this is the first case to ask the Supreme Court to overrule an FDA decision that a drug is safe and effective. So the outcome of this case could really have very far-reaching implications for the FDA’s authority to continue to regulate not only mifepristone, but a wide range of other drugs. And most likely the other drugs that are perceived to be controversial — gender-affirming care or PrEP — those are the drugs that are most likely to be litigated if this door is opened.

Rovner: And I know that there’s nothing that makes drugmakers … I mean, patent issues and drugmakers and court issues are hard enough, the idea that they could be granted approval by the FDA and then somebody could just come in and sue and make that go away.

Sobel: Oh, absolutely. This got the attention of the entire industry. There were many, many amicus briefs that were filed.

Rovner: So normally you can’t really tell from the oral arguments, as we said, how the justices are leaning. But in this case, the justices seemed fairly transparent about where we think they’re going to go. What are we expecting here?

Sobel: Yes. I mean, as I said before, it’s always dangerous to read the tea leaves too much, but this did seem more transparent than most, and that most justices seemed not convinced that the plaintiffs in this case have legal standing, which requires that you have an injury and that injury can be addressed by what the court decides. So even assuming that the plaintiffs have an injury, the question is what would happen if we roll back the rules that the FDA has back to 2011? Does that make it more or less likely that these plaintiffs would see people with side effects of mifepristone? It’s not really clear. In addition, many of the justices, including Justice Barrett, really pushed back on the lawyer representing the Alliance for where in the doctors’ affidavits it said they were actually participating in something they objected to. Notably, not really about necessarily this case, but about what might come up in the future, both Justice Thomas and Alito did bring up the Comstock Act and signaled that they would uphold the enforcement of the Comstock Act, pretty much inviting a future case or a future administration to enforce the Comstock Act.

Rovner: As much as we’ve talked about it, remind us again what the Comstock Act is.

Sobel: Sure. So it’s a law from 1873, which was an anti-obscenity law, and as part of it, it banned the mailing of any drug or device or instrument that could be used for abortion.

Rovner: Well, I guess during the entirety of Roe [v. Wade], it was irrelevant, right? Because abortion was legal,

Sobel: Right. And it’s been dormant. I mean, we can’t find any enforcement in any modern era.

Rovner: Yes, so it goes back a long ways, but it’s top of mind for a lot of people.

All right, moving on to our last case. On April 24, the court heard Idaho v. United States and Moyle v. United States, both of which challenged the federal government’s interpretation of the Emergency Medical Treatment and Active Labor Act, EMTALA, to override Idaho’s near-complete abortion ban, at least in medical emergencies. Let’s start by explaining what EMTALA is and how it relates to abortion?

Sobel: Sure. So EMTALA requires hospitals that participate in Medicare, which is pretty much every acute hospital, to provide stabilizing treatment within the hospital’s capability when there’s an emergency medical condition, which includes when the absence of immediate medical attention could reasonably be expected to place the health of the individual in serious jeopardy or serious impairments of bodily functions. So it was really intended as an anti-dumping law initially so that people who were uninsured weren’t just transferred or sent away to another hospital because they didn’t have the capacity to pay.

Idaho’s abortion ban only has an exception for life. It doesn’t have an exception to preserve the health of the pregnant person. And so the Biden administration sued Idaho and said this law then, essentially, puts these hospitals that have this requirement, because they accept Medicare payments, to stabilize patients. And when that care includes abortion care, they’re required to provide that under federal law. So the question is, does the EMTALA preempt the Idaho abortion ban?

It’s clear from the oral argument that Idaho’s position is that there is no conflict because they read into the EMTALA law that “within the hospital’s capability” includes the laws of Idaho and that Idaho gets to set the standard of care, and that that’s up to states, not up to the federal government. Whereas the federal government, the Biden administration’s position, is that, no, EMTALA specifically was an antidumping law, and that includes stabilizing all patients regardless of the care. And we don’t have to say including abortion in order for it to include abortion, it includes all care that’s required to stabilize patients.

Rovner: Of course, a lot of anti-abortion activists will say that the only time abortion is medically necessary is when it threatens life and that would be covered. But we’re seeing that that’s not necessarily the case, right? I mean, we’re seeing individual instances of this these days.

Sobel: Yeah. I mean, we know from Idaho that many patients have been helicoptered out of the state into nearby states that also have some abortion restrictions but just aren’t as restrictive as Idaho is, because they’re going to become septic or they’re going to lose kidney function, or they’re going to lose their reproductive organs. So they’re not in danger of losing their life immediately, but they’re in danger of losing serious bodily functions.

The other question that came up during oral argument was about just how imminent the life needs to be. And this comes down to how this is putting doctors in a pretty uncomfortable place. So yes, the doctors are permitted to provide abortion care in Idaho when they can certify in good faith that without the abortion care, the person’s life is endangered. But they’re concerned that, after the fact, attorneys for the state could come back and say, “Oh, wait a minute, that wasn’t your really good-faith decision and we’re going to prosecute you and we’re going to bring in our own expert.” And the question is really, how much should doctors have on the line? It’s a criminal statute, so there’s jail time involved. Of course, there’s a loss of license. And so how far out should doctors be required to go? And this is, again, it’s making people really uncomfortable, and there are anecdotes of people leaving the state because of this and not feeling comfortable practicing there.

Rovner: More than anecdotes of people leaving the state, there are people who come forward and said they’re leaving the state. And as a result, some hospitals are having to shut down their OB services. I mean, because when the doctors, OB-GYNs who are leaving, so in the ironic position of people who are having babies not being able to find someone who can deliver their baby at the same time.

Sobel: Right, right.

Rovner: That’s obviously one ramification within Idaho, but there could be ramifications outside just on the idea: Isn’t federal law supposed to trump state law? Isn’t that sort of a basic foundation of how we work?

Sobel: Yes. The supremacy clause is pretty basic when you go to law school. So yes. And I think how they word this decision will be very interesting to see because it’s a question of, is there a conflict or is there not? And the attorneys for Idaho were basically suggesting that there’s no conflict. So you don’t even need to say that there’s a preemption. You just have to find that there’s no conflict between Idaho law and EMTALA.

However they rule, if they rule for Idaho and say that you’re allowed to continue having this abortion ban that only has a life exception with no health exception, immediately, there’s four additional states with abortion bans that do not make exceptions for health as well. And those states are Arkansas, Mississippi, Oklahoma, and South Dakota. So in those states, like Idaho, a hospital cannot legally provide an abortion as stabilizing treatment when a person presents with a health endangerment and not a life endangerment. And so again, those risks can include sepsis, kidney failure, loss of fertility, they’re serious risks, even though they may not be life-threatening at the moment.

And even in the states that do have exceptions for health, we have seen that those exceptions are often very narrow and vague and hard to be implemented in real time. So pregnant people can still be denied emergency abortion care that’s needed to preserve their health, even in states that have a health exception. And if EMTALA doesn’t act as a backstop to say, “But wait, hospital, you’re violating this federal law,” then people are stuck with the state law that is narrow and vague.

Rovner: So I mean, overturning Roe, the justices says, “Oh, great, we won’t have to deal with abortion anymore. It’s all about the states.” But as we can see, it’s not all about the states. The Supreme Court is going to have to continue to deal with this issue.

Sobel: Right. Definitely.

Rovner: All right, well, finally, just a couple of housekeeping issues. We don’t actually know when these decisions will come, right? People who don’t follow the court on a regular basis often think that opinions are scheduled the same way oral arguments are, but it’s always a surprise.

Sobel: Unfortunately, they are not. Right now, the court lists their decision days on their website, which is on their calendar. Right now Thursdays seem to be the popular day, they have Thursdays through June listed. They most likely will add more decision days. On decision days, they start posting decisions at 10 a.m. Eastern Time, and you can follow along either on the Supreme Court’s website or many people go to SCOTUSblog, which also has a live blog that interprets some of what’s happening for people who are new to the court.

Rovner: And I will put both of those links in the show notes. Laurie Sobel, this has been so helpful. Thank you so much for joining us.

Sobel: Thank you for having me, Julie.

Rovner: OK, that is our show. As always, if you enjoy the podcast, you can subscribe wherever you get your podcasts. We’d appreciate it if you left us a review; that helps other people find us, too. Special thanks as always to our technical guru, Francis Ying, and our fill-in editor this week, Rebecca Adams. As always, you can email us your comments or questions. We’re at whatthehealth@kff.org, or you can still find me at X @jrovner. We will be back in your feed next week with the news. Until then, be healthy.

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