Major decisions were handed down pertaining to unions, insurance claims data and employee benefits. (Photo: iStock)

Recent years have featured a number of highly consequential Supreme Court decisions for health care and employers, and this year was no different. 

The vacancy on the nine-member panel created by the death of Justice Antonin Scalia, an icon of conservative jurisprudence, left the court deadlocked on some issues, which frustrated activists on both the left and the right. But just as consequential were a number of decisions delivered in spite of Scalia’s death.

In what appeared to be an obvious product of a deadlock, the court chose not to render a decision in Zubik v. Burwell, which centered on the Affordable Care Act’s contraception mandate.

Religious nonprofits had sued, arguing that they their religious beliefs were being unconstitutionally burdened by being required to notify the federal government that they did not want to pay for contraception for their employees. Although they would not technically pay, the insurer providing the employee coverage would pay for drugs that they found morally objectionable.

The Supreme Court ordered the several lower courts that had reached different conclusions on the case to try to find a compromise between the parties, a highly unusual move that suggested the court had come to a 4-4 tie.

Similarly, the court refused to hear a suit challenging a law in Washington state that forbids pharmacists from filling contraception prescriptions because of religious objections.

Another big deadlock vote amounted to a big victory for organized labor. The court was unable to render a decision in a suit that challenged the right of public sector unions to require dues from nonmembers. That means that a lower court decision upholding that practice, which exists in many states, will continue. That means that conservative activists who seek to break the power of public unions will have to continue advancing that goal legislatively at the state level.

In a case that was not affected by Scalia’s death, the court struck down a highly restrictive abortion law in Texas that mirrors laws passed by GOP legislatures in many other states across the country.

The court found that requirements that abortion clinics be equipped like ambulatory surgical centers or that abortion doctors have admitting privileges at nearby hospitals were not based on medical evidence geared toward making women safer, but were instead intended for the sole purpose of making it harder for women to obtain abortions. That finding was supported by testimony of a number of medical organizations.

Insurers also got a big win in Gobeille v. Liberty Mutual Insurance, in which the court ruled that the state of Vermont could not compel an insurer to share its claims data with a state agency, based on its interpretation of the Employee Retirement Income Security Act. 

Generic drug-makers also appeared to get a victory in Cuozzo Speed Technologies v. Lee, in which the court ruled that the Patent Office’s criteria for evaluating patents claimed by pharmaceutical companies was appropriate, to the dismay of brand-name drug-makers, Modern Healthcare reports.

Conversely, the court sided with medical device makers in two other cases, which Modern Healthcare reports could make it easier for maker device manufacturers to win big financial judgments against companies that infringe on their patents.