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Senators 'Deeply Troubled' by Trump's New Health Department Pick

Twelve U.S. Senators — and many LGBTQ advocates — are troubled by the appointment of Roger Severino as director of the HHS Office of Civil Rights.

In a letter sent to Health Secretary Tom Price, 12 U.S. senators on the Committee on Health, Education, Labor and Pensions stated they are “deeply troubled” by the appointment of Roger Severino as the Director of the Office of Civil Rights (OCR) at the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS).

The letter describes Severino's “long history of making bigoted statements” about the LGBTQ community and states that his hire raises “deep concerns” about the Trump administration’s hiring practices. The two-page letter was obtained by the Washington Blade, and the office of Senator Patty Murray, the ranking member of the Committee on Health, Education, Labor and Pensions, confirmed its existence to NBC Out.

Roger Severino, Director of the Office for Civil Rights at the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services
Roger Severino, Director of the Office for Civil Rights at the U.S. Department of Health and Human ServicesDavid Hills / Heritage Foundation

Dated April 10 and signed only by Democrats, the letter comes on the heels of statements from LGBTQ advocates and the House LGBT Caucus, which also expressed alarm over Severino’s appointment.

Severino and Tennessee State Senator Mark Green, the nominee for Army Secretary, are just the latest of Trump's picks to garner criticism for their track records on lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender rights. LGBTQ advocates have previously voiced concerns regarding high-profile appointments such as Supreme Court Justice Neil Gorsuch, Attorney General Jeff Sessions and Education Secretary Betsy DeVos.

“That’s where we are with the Trump administration,” said Mara Keisling, executive director of the National Center for Transgender Equality (NCTE), who was “extremely glad” the 12 senators had voiced their concerns over Severino. “He is appointing extremist after extremist. The bright side, I guess, is that there is no pretense that President Trump doesn’t want to be the most anti-LGBT president we have ever had,” Keisling added.

According to the senators’ letter, “Mr. Severino's past statements, writings, and affiliations make him unqualified to lead an office whose purpose is to ensure that ‘people have equal access and opportunities to participate in certain health care and human services programs without unlawful discrimination.’”

Severino's past writings include a 2016 report he co-authored in his capacity as director of the DeVos Center for Religion and Civil Society at the Heritage Foundation, a position he occupied just prior to his appointment at the OCR. Severino called for the repeal of the Affordable Care Act (ACA), also known as "Obamacare," and opposed the interpretation of Section 1557 of the ACA to include gender identity. Section 1557 prohibits discrimination on the basis of race, color, national origin, sex, age or disability in any program that receives funding from the HHS.

In the report, Severino claimed the OCR’s interpretation of Section 1557 to include gender stereotyping and gender identity confers “special privileges” and violates the “religious liberty and freedom of conscience” of health care providers.

As director of the OCR, Severino would oversee enforcement of the non-discrimination protections under Section 1557 of the Affordable Care Act.

“There is nothing in Mr. Severino’s past… that would make us feel like he is committed to enforcing federal laws against discrimination,” Keisling said. “President Trump has handed over domestic polity to Heritage Foundation.”

For their part, the Heritage Foundation defended Mr. Severino’s record in a statement sent to NBC Out: “Roger Severino has a distinguished record of fighting for the civil rights and freedoms of all Americans. We have no doubt that Roger, in his new role at HHS, will protect the civil rights of all Americans.”

NCTE, along with several other civil society organizations, met with Severino on Wednesday after receiving a request from his office — a move Keisling cautiously characterized as a “good sign.”

“We wanted him to understand this is about enforcing federal civil rights laws, and also it’s about people who need the federal government’s help and have the legal right to expect the federal government to provide those protections,” Keisling said.

The OCR did not respond to NBC Out for requests for comment.

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