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Trump administration rolls back Obama-era health care protections for transgender people

Rights groups denounced the move as a license to discriminate against LGBTQ Americans.
Demonstrators Protest Federal Plan Targeting Transgender People
Demonstrators hold signs in support of trans equality outside the White House o n Oct. 22, 2018.Tasos Katopodis / Bloomberg via Getty Images file

The Trump administration moved Friday to roll back Obama-era protections for transgender patients, the third rule change issued this month that LGBTQ advocates say will sanction discrimination against transgender people.

The Health and Human Services Department's proposed new rule, released Friday, says in effect that federal laws banning sex discrimination in health care don’t apply to people's "gender identity." The proposed rule from HHS reverses President Barack Obama's administration, which found that the Affordable Care Act’s anti-discrimination section does indeed protect transgender people seeking health care services.

The rule can be finalized after a 60-day public comment period.

“When Congress prohibited sex discrimination, it did so according to the plain meaning of the term, and we are making our regulations conform,” HHS' director of the Office of Civil Rights, Roger Severino, said in a statement announcing the proposed change.

LGBTQ rights groups denounced the move, as did Rep. Jennifer Wexton, D-Va., a vocal advocate for transgender equality.

“By repealing a regulation clarifying that LGBT people are protected against health care discrimination under the Affordable Care Act’s nondiscrimination provisions, the Trump Administration seeks to deny life-saving health care to LGBT people and others and replaces these critical protections with a narrow definition of sex, not grounded in science or the law,” Diana Flynn, Lambda Legal's litigation director, said Friday in a statement.

"The Trump administration is continuing its all out assault on transgender Americans,” Wexton said in a statement. "Transgender people are denied medical care at a much higher rate than their cisgender peers. About one in three transgender people will experience homelessness in their lifetime. These changes are not based on sound policy or genuine concern, but on bad faith fearmongering by a callous administration that could put lives at risk."

In 2016, Trump became the first-ever Republican nominee to mention the LGBTQ community from a GOP convention dais, saying, "As your president, I will do everything in my power to protect our LGBTQ citizens from the violence and oppression of a hateful foreign ideology,” referring to the Muslim faith of the Pulse nightclub shooter. However, LGBTQ rights groups say that his administration has proposed policies, installed judges, and appointed staff hostile to LGBTQ equality, including Severino, who has repeatedly espoused anti-LGBTQ views.

In 2006, Severino authored an opinion piece in which he argued that religious sensibilities should trump gay rights. That same year, he argued against same-sex marriage in a Maryland courtroom. Before assuming his role as chief civil rights officer at HHS, Severino worked at the Helen DeVos Center for Religion & Civil Society at the Heritage Foundation, where he authored anti-transgender opinions for their website. In one, he argued that sexual orientation and gender identity are “changeable” and therefore not deserving of anti-discrimination protections.

According to the Williams Institute, an LGBTQ think tank, 1.4 million Americans are transgender.

Obama used the executive branch's rulemaking power to broaden the definition of sex in order to extend nondiscrimination protections to transgender people in areas where they report high levels of discrimination, like health care and homeless shelters. But under the Trump administration, many of those rules have been rolled back.

On May 2, HHS released a final rule that would allow health care workers in federally funded facilities to refuse to perform or assist in medical procedures that violate their "conscience" or religion, BuzzFeed News reported, including abortions and sex reassignment surgeries.

Earlier this week, the Department of Housing and Urban Development made a similar move to rescind the Equal Access rule, a similar regulation issued by the Obama administration that ensured federally funded shelters did not discriminate against transgender people. A day before that change was announced, HUD Secretary Ben Carson told a congressional committee that he had no plans to alter the rule.

Wexton said Carson lied to Congress and called on him to resign.

Lambda Legal, meanwhile, set up a page for people to submit complaints of instances where they were mistreated or discriminated against in medical settings due to their sexuality or gender identity.