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Court asked to delay health spending rules

A group representing restaurant operators in San Francisco asked the Supreme Court on Friday to temporarily block the city government there from requiring employers to spend specific amounts on health care for their employees, arguing that a city ordinance is barred by federal worker benefit law.  The application (07A654) was filed in Golden Gate Restaurant Association v. City and County of San Francisco, et al.; it was filed with Justice Anthony M. Kennedy as Circuit Justice for the Ninth Circuit.  Justice Kennedy has the option of acting on the plea alone, or of referring it to his colleagues for action.  (The application can be downloaded here.)

The association seeks an order to put back into effect a federal judge’s Dec. 26 ruling that the city’s Health Care Security Ordinance cannot be enforced because it interferes with the federal Employee Retirement Income Security Act (ERISA).  The Ninth Circuit Court, however, blocked the judge’s order on Jan. 9, and the city immediately put its ordinance into effect.

In asking for relief now from the ordinance, the association’s appeal argued: “This matter lies at the center of a national debate over universal healthcare: may various local governments require employers to pay different minimum amounts toward employee health benefits, or is that authority reserved to the federal government? More than half the states have considered this type of legislation in the past three years, setting up an inevitable collision with more than three decades of uniform benefit regulation under ERISA.”

Under the San Francisco ordinance, adopted July 25, 2006, employers with 100 employees must pay at the outset $1.73 per hour or about $300 a month in health spending for full-time employees; those with 20 to 99 workers must start at $1.17 per hour or about $203 a month. There is to be a 5 percent increase each year.

This kind of plan is sometimes referred to as a “fair share” benefit requirement.  The issue was actively litigated in a celebrated case involving a Maryland law, challenged by Wal-Mart Stores; that case ended without reaching the Supreme Court.