9.1.22 – Dallas Morning News

“Texas Christians sue over federal insurance mandate for HIV prevention drugs PrEP”
HIV rates in Dallas could increase if Christian Texans win PrEP lawsuit, doctors say.
By Lauren McGaughy

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Excerpts from this article:

AUSTIN — A group of Christians from Texas is suing to knock down many of the Affordable Care Act’s preventive care mandates, specifically targeting HIV drugs.

The federal government last year began requiring most insurance companies to fully cover HIV prevention medication known as PrEP, sold under the brand names Descovy and Truvada. But in a federal lawsuit filed in North Texas, a group who say they oppose homosexuality on religious grounds are suing to change these rules.

Their lawsuit says the federal system for determining which preventive care insurance companies must cover is unconstitutional and argues the plaintiffs, as people of faith, should be able to opt out of coverage for specific medicines like PrEP and contraception.

Their lawyer is former solicitor general Jonathan Mitchell, best known for helping write the Texas abortion law that empowers everyday citizens to sue people they believe have helped others get an abortion. This is one of at least six suits he is handling that could adversely affect the lives of LGBT Americans, including cases that target gay marriage and employment discrimination

What is PrEP?

…PrEP, which stands for pre-exposure prophylaxis, got CDC approval a decade ago. Manufactured by California-based Gilead Sciences, Truvada and Descovy are once-daily pills. Health care providers can also administer PrEP by shot, under the brand name Apretude, once every two months.

The Centers for Disease Control say PrEP drugs, when taken as prescribed, can reduce the risk of getting HIV from sex by about 99% and by intravenous drug use by about 74%. Some PrEP drugs are also used, along with other drugs, in the treatment of HIV.

…That year, an expert panel tasked with recommending preventive care best practices to the federal government gave PrEP its top rating. Under rules set out by the Affordable Care Act, the decision meant most insurers would be required to cover the drugs as well as associated doctor’s visits and lab tests with absolutely no out-of-pocket cost to the patient.

…Mitchell filed the lawsuit less than a year later.

The Texas suit argues…that PrEP encourages “prostitution, sexual promiscuity and intravenous drug use.”

The plaintiffs also include Fort Worth orthodontist John Kelley, Ashley and Zach Maxwell of Hood County and Joel Miller of Parker County. Miller does not have religious objections to this coverage but says he does not need contraceptive coverage because his wife is past her childbearing years.

Kelley and the Maxwells said they don’t “need or want” PrEP coverage because neither they nor any of their family members “are engaged in behavior that transmits HIV.”

The lawsuit says they also do not want coverage for free STD testing because they are in monogamous relationships. Kelley believes he should be allowed to opt out of this coverage for himself, and the staff he employs at Kelley Orthodontics.

The plaintiffs want the court to rule that insurance companies should have to offer plans that do not cover these preventive services — a carve-out for religious objectors.

Each of these plaintiffs is a Christian, and they are unwilling to purchase health insurance that subsidizes abortifacient contraception or PrEP drugs that encourage and facilitate homosexual behavior,” the lawsuit stated.

Steve Hotze, physician and political activist, is another plaintiff. Hotze has been a lead supporter of anti-LGBT causes like the so-called bathroom bill and the successful effort to repeal Houston’s equal rights ordinance. He has said he believes

HIV can be transmitted through blood, breast milk, semen, rectal and vaginal fluids, as well as to a child during pregnancy, according to the CDC.

Steve Hotze, physician and political activist, is another plaintiff. Hotze has been a lead supporter of anti-LGBT causes like the so-called bathroom bill and the successful effort to repeal Houston’s equal rights ordinance. He has said he believes LGBT people are “ungodly” and “wicked.”

…The case is before U.S. District Court Judge Reed O’Connor, a George W. Bush appointee who ruled that Obamacare is unconstitutional. In recent years, O’Connor has become the go-to judge for conservatives seeking favorable rulings on hot-button issues like transgender rights.

A year ago, the judge ruled that a group of religious health care providers need not perform abortions or gender-affirming medical treatments. The Fifth Court of Appeals upheld that decision on Monday.

This month, O’Connor agreed to change the lawsuit’s title to swap Kelley’s name for that of Hotze’s Katy-based health care business. Media coverage of the case had “triggered a wave of threats and cyberbullying” against Kelley and his family, Mitchell wrote in a court filing.

PrEP and the Supreme Court

Doron Dorfman, a professor at Seton Hall Law School who researches insurance law and PrEP availability, said this isn’t the first time there has been a religious challenge to the Affordable Care Act’s care mandates.

In 2014, the U.S. Supreme Court narrowly ruled that Hobby Lobby could cite the owners’ Christian faith to decline to cover contraception for its employees. However, that decision applied only to certain for-profit corporations run on religious principles.

What differs now, Dorfman said, is the court after it overturned Roe vs. Wade has signaled it is more open to entertaining challenges to federal government authority and LGBT rights.

…In an interview earlier this year, Mitchell said everyone deserves representation.

White-shoe law firms represent murderers, al-Qaeda terrorists and child molesters like Jeffrey Epstein,” Mitchell told The Dallas Morning News. “Of course, none of those law firms would represent Dr. Hotze, and they would ostracize any lawyer who does. But I don’t enforce a political-correctness test for the clients that I represent.”

The federal coverage mandate not only requires the drugs to be made available with no out-of-pocket cost to the patient, but also services like quarterly blood screening and HIV tests

HIV and Dallas

Texas, and Dallas in particular, could be hit particularly hard by new HIV diagnoses.

About one in 10 of the more than 29,000 Americans diagnosed with HIV in 2020 live in Texas, according to the CDC. Dallas had the second-highest number of new HIV cases in the state that year, behind Harris County…

While HIV rates are highest among Black and Latino men, PrEP usage is far higher in the white community…

One in five new infections in 2019 were among women — nearly all of whom attributed it to heterosexual contact…