On Election Day, voters cast their ballots in a crucial election for democracy, abortion rights, and economic justice. While votes rolled in deciding who will control the legislative branch of our government, another branch – the Supreme Court – held oral arguments in the case Health and Hospital Corporation (HHC) of Marion County v. Talevski. This case may change Medicaid as we know it by eliminating the right of Medicaid enrollees, and participants in other public benefit programs, to sue in federal court when their rights are violated by state officials.
Summary of HHC v. Talevski
HHC v. Talevski stems from Gorgi Talevski’s experience as a resident of Valparaiso Care and Rehabilitation, a government owned nursing home that, according to Talevski’s family, “administered psychotropic drugs to restrain him, then involuntarily transferred him.” Talevski was so heavily chemically restrained he was rendered unable to feed himself or speak English and was transferred to another facility far away from his family without consent. Given the treatment suffered by Gorgi Talevski, Talevski’s family sued state officials under Section 1983 of The Civil Rights Act of 1871, which allows someone to sue state officials for depriving them of their rights under the Constitution or federal law. The Court’s decision could radically change people’s ability to access public benefits and protect their rights with respect to these programs.
Restricting access to the courts
In this case, HHC is arguing that programs like Medicaid are not covered by Section 1983. The Court could roll back decades of precedent which has long guaranteed the right to seek justice in federal courts through Section 1983, slamming the doors of justice shut in the face of millions of Americans. If the Court rules against Talevksi, state officials could violate someone’s rights with respect to the program they are enrolled in– such as Medicaid, SNAP, housing assistance, or other public benefit programs–and they will have no right to sue in federal court.
This would represent a radical reinterpretation of federal law, upending precedent and wiping out access to the federal court system for enrollees whose rights were violated. The alternative is a system where the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) steps in to address violations of law, but this process has been described as “long and arduous,” it is entirely voluntary for HHS to step in, and enrollees have no ability to ask HHS to step in. Rather, beneficiaries often turn to federal courts instead to receive faster remedies to their harms. HHC. v. Talevski has the potential to ramp up the ongoing assault on public benefits by preventing recipients from accessing the court system, terminating their benefits without due process, and limiting access to care arbitrarily. Around the country public benefits are under threat, including states banning Medicaid coverage for gender-affirming care and wrongfully terminating benefits.
Who is impacted
If the Court accepts HHC’s argument, the brunt of the impact will be borne by Black, Latino, Asian American and indigenous people, the LGBTQ+ community, disabled people, women, and in particular women of color and other marginalized communities. More than 61 percent of Medicaid beneficiaries identify as Black, Hispanic, Asian American, or another non-white race or ethnicity. Additionally, 63 percent of SNAP recipients under the age of 60 are women and 11 million SNAP recipients are people with disabilities.
As demonstrated with Talevski’s case, violations of a person’s rights can be grotesque and disturbing–but they can also be as simple as an incorrect application denial or miscalculation of income. The Court could eliminate one of the most effective remedies for public benefits recipients to have their benefits restored when wrongfully terminated and their rights are violated. With the right to abortion severely restricted in 26 states, and Medicaid covering 42 percent of births in the United States, the possibility of losing family planning coverage, Medicaid coverage, or being mistreated by state officials during pregnancy and not being able to quickly restore benefits could exacerbate the maternal and infant mortality crisis. Furthermore, every state that has failed to adopt Medicaid expansion has also banned or is likely to ban abortion. Put simply this Court decision could lead to more adverse health outcomes and preventable deaths.
Where we stand
Justices Thomas, Alito, and Gorsuch have already signaled that they are prepared to rule in favor of eliminating this right. A case tackling the same issue was presented to the Court in 2018, and while the majority chose not to hear it, this trio dissented. The National Partnership for Women & Families agrees with the more than two dozen amicus briefs arguing to preserve Medicaid, and protect access to the courts for individuals whose rights are violated.
The Court should follow its own precedent which has been relied on for over 50 years and follow the plain language of Section 1983 to secure “any rights” under the “Constitution and laws.” We support the arguments made by the National Health Law Program and dozens of other nonprofit and advocacy groups that Section 1983 is unambiguous on the laws covered by it, and the argument pushed by HHC is radical and historically unsupported. The Court should follow precedent and protect Medicaid enrollees, not just their access to health care but the basic right to seek justice in the courtroom.