SF restaurants lose US Supreme Court bid

March 30, 2009 4:51:32 PM PDT
A local restaurant group today lost a U.S. Supreme Court bid for an emergency stay of a requirement that businesses help pay for the city of San Francisco's pioneering health care program.

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The court announced this afternoon that Justice Anthony Kennedy had turned down the request by the Golden Gate Restaurant Association. The group can still continue with a normal appeal of a federal appeals court ruling upholding the employer spending mandate, which could take months.

Kevin Westlye, the association's executive director, said, "We're disappointed in the judge's decision, but we do understand that stay motions are rarely granted by the U.S. Supreme Court."

Westlye said the group will pursue a regular appeal and will be required to submit its opening petition to the high court by early June.

Deputy City Attorney Vincent Chhabria said the city will respond in July and the court is expected to announce next fall whether it will grant a hearing on the appeal.

San Francisco Mayor Gavin Newsom released a statement this afternoon, saying, "The court's decision allows us to continue providing uninsured workers with access to health care ... I encourage the Golden Gate Restaurant Association to work collaboratively with the city and county of San Francisco to expand health care access."

The funding mandate is part of a program known as Healthy San Francisco, which aims to provide coordinated health care to an estimated 60,000 uninsured city residents who aren't covered by other government programs. The program went into effect last year.

Part of the cost -- an estimated $14 million out of $200 million annually -- is paid by employers, who have a choice of either setting up a health insurance plan for their workers or making payments directly to the city.

The restaurant association claims that provision violates a federal law governing employee benefits.

The group argued in its petition to Kennedy that the spending requirement "threatens national interests" by obstructing national uniformity in the administration of worker benefit plans.

The city contended in a response last week that halting the requirement could cause great hardship by disrupting health care coverage now given to 37,000 people.

The funding mandate was upheld in September by a three-judge panel of the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in San Francisco. The restaurant group then asked to have the case reconsidered by an 11-judge appeals panel, but the court rejected that request on March 9.

The group filed its emergency petition on March 15 with Kennedy, who is assigned to consider emergency motions arising from 9th Circuit cases.

The spending mandate requires businesses with 20 to 99 workers to spend $1.17 per hour per worker on either a health plan or fees to the city. Companies with staffs of more than 100 must pay $1.76 per hour.

Other funding for the program is provided by city, state and local governments and a sliding fee for patients.

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