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Judge: Employer with religious objections not required to provide HIV-prevention drugs to employees

The federal court ruling exempts employers with religious objections from providing employees with insurance coverage for HIV prevention pills.

ATLANTA — A federal judge in Texas has ruled that an employer cannot be forced to provide insurance coverage for the drugs that can prevent HIV-- if that employer has religious objections.

The potential impact in Georgia and beyond could be massive, said Jeff Graham of Georgia Equality in Atlanta Wednesday.

“If the ruling stands, it certainly could have a devastating impact for our ability to fight HIV and AIDS here in Georgia,” Graham said.

Graham has been following the Texas case and said that those who are denied coverage because of this ruling could face out-of-pocket costs of thousands of dollars a year.

“And while there are free programs that are available to people that lack private insurance,” Graham said. “The government cannot be expected to maintain all of these costs. So if we truly are going to have effective HIV prevention tools, people that have private insurance should be able to have their insurance pay for this. In fact, that's currently the federal law, that people need to have private insurance pay for this at no cost to the individual accessing the preventive services. That's a federal law that went into effect last summer. And I think that's what this lawsuit in Texas is directly attacking.”

At the Georgia Capitol, twice since 2016, Republican state legislators including Sen. Marty Harbin of Fayette County have tried to pass a bill even more far-reaching than the latest ruling from the Texas judge-- to exempt people from obeying various state laws that they believe conflict with their religious beliefs.

“I just want to bring protection for the people of Georgia in their beliefs and their religious rights,” Harbin said in 2019.

Harbin was not available for comment Wednesday about whether he’ll try again next year-- based, in part, on the new, federal court ruling that tosses out mandatory HIV-prevention coverage if an employer objects to providing the coverage, based on religious grounds.

As it is, according to the CDC and the Georgia Department of Public Health, Georgia has had the highest rate of new HIV diagnoses in the country five years in a row, so far-- thousands of new diagnoses a year.

“For a state like Georgia that has one of the highest HIV transmission rates, not just in the country, but frankly, from around the world,” Graham said. “We need to ensure that as many people as possible have access to these cutting edge medical technologies, if we have any hope of reducing the spread of HIV in our communities.”

The Texas case may end up before the U.S. Supreme Court, for a final ruling, as defendants consider appealing the judge’s ruling.

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