In a win for proponents of employer mandates to help fund healthcare for the uninsured, a federal appeals court has granted the city of San Franciscos request to implement the employer-spending portion of its universal healthcare plan immediately, despite a lower courts ruling overturning the requirement on grounds that it conflicted with a federal statute governing workers health benefits.
A three-judge panel of the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals unanimously approved a stay on the employer mandate pending the citys appeal of U.S. District Judge Jeffrey Whites ruling Dec. 26, 2007, striking it down.
Since this past July, San Francisco has been slowly rolling out its universal healthcare access program, called Healthy San Francisco, with the aim of providing affordable healthcare through local providers to about 82,000 uninsured residents. As part of that city ordinance, employers were set to start contributing to the program or providing minimum health benefits to local workers starting Jan. 2.
The Golden Gate Restaurant Association succeeded in persuading White in its legal challenge that the employer requirement, affecting businesses with 20 or more workers, was pre-empted by the Employee Retirement Income Security Act, or ERISA, a 1974 federal law that prohibits states and municipalities from enacting conflicting regulations on employee benefit plans. Similar employer mandates in Maryland and Suffolk County, N.Y., have been overturned on this basis.
But 9th U.S. Circuit Judge William Fletcher wrote in the opinion granting the stay that the city has a strong likelihood of prevailing on appeal against the association on the ERISA issue. Because of this, the employer-spending requirement should be enforced to prevent avoidable human suffering, Fletcher wrote. The court also noted that the general public has an interest in the health of San Franciscan residents and workers, particularly those workers who handle their food and work in other service industries.
San Francisco City Attorney Dennis Herrera called the ruling an important victory for thousands of uninsured San Franciscans. -- by Rebecca Vesely