On April 10, a group of Democratic U.S. senators led by Sen. Patty Murray (D-Wash.) sent a letter to newly installed Secretary of Health and Human Services (HHS) Tom Price speaking out against the hire of Roger Severino to head the Department of Health and Human Services’ Office of Civil Rights (OCR).
Until being named to the position at HHS, Severino served as the director of the DeVos Center for Religion and Civil Society at the conservative think tank the Heritage Foundation, where he made a name for himself for his vocal and prolific opposition to Section 1557 of the Affordable Care Act, the measure of the historic health care reform law that expressly prohibits discrimination based on race, color, national origin, age, disability, and sex in all federally funded health programs.
The DeVos Center for Religion and Civil Society was endowed by Richard and Helen DeVos, the in-laws of newly confirmed Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos, and their family foundation.
In the letter, the senators write, “Mr. Severino has a long history of making bigoted statements toward lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people and attacking women’s access to health care services and reproductive rights. His appointment raises deep concerns about the employment decisions and hiring practices being established by the Trump administration.”
The senators end their letter by asking Price to reply with an answer as to how HHS plans “to promote a diverse and inclusive workforce free of prejudice or malice,” how it plans “to handle reports of inappropriate communications or behavior,” whether Severino plans to recuse himself from work related to the enforcement of Section 1557, and what the department’s procedures are for vetting political appointees.
Murray is joined by Sens. Tammy Baldwin (D-Wis.), Kirsten Gillibrand (D-N.Y.), Richard Blumenthal (D-Conn.), Cory Booker (D-N.J.), Sherrod Brown (D-Ohio), Edward Markey (D-Mass.), Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.), Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.), Sheldon Whitehouse (D-R.I.), Jeff Merkley (D-Ore.), and Tim Kaine (D-Va.).
What’s at Stake
Before the passage of the Affordable Care Act (ACA), known as Obamacare, insurance companies routinely denied coverage to same-sex couples, and more than half of all health insurance plans discriminated against transgender individuals. Section 1557 set out to address that discrimination directly by clarifying that sex discrimination includes affording protections to trans people and banning sex stereotyping discrimination that often affects LGBT people.
LGBT individuals reckon with significant disparities in terms of access to care in the American health care system. A 2010 nationwide study found that 10 percent of lesbian, gay, and bisexual respondents and 25 percent of transgender respondents reported being outright denied health care because of their sexual orientation or gender identity. And an additional 2011 study by the National Center for Transgender Equality and the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force found that one in four of more than 6,400 transgender and gender nonconforming individuals reported being denied needed treatment, being harassed in a health care setting, and postponing needed medical care because of discrimination from providers.
In Severino’s Own Words
Just last year, Severino called Section 1557 an “abuse of power” implemented “to coerce everyone into pledging allegiance to a radical new gender ideology.” And he falsely made the allegation that Section 1557 mandates gender confirmation surgeries, even when not medically necessary — which the rule in no way does.
Severino has also been outspoken about the issue of transgender students’ desire to use the restroom in school that corresponds with their gender identity, claiming that making such an allowance would give “unfettered rights” allowing “boys … access to the girls’ shower room” in elementary, middle, and high schools.
Severino has instead recommended a “separate but equal” policy. Under this proposal, transgender students would be given separate restrooms of their own to use, to ensure the comfort of “those on the other side who feel that their privacy and their safety is being put at risk” by allowing a child to use the restroom during the school day.
Implications for Reproductive Rights
Section 1557 also offers protections for women who have received abortions in the past from being denied coverage or care on the basis of religious objection to the procedure. While the Hyde Amendment means that no federal funding can go toward abortion care, Section 1557 set out to ensure that a woman is not turned away from a provider or denied coverage when it comes to needing care that has nothing to do with abortion.
But wait — there’s more.
Severino also spoke out in favor of the challenge raised by Little Sisters of the Poor in a case that reached the Supreme Court last year, saying that the exemptions that the Affordable Care Act afforded religious groups that were against the ACA’s contraception mandate on religious grounds were not enough, and that their employees — regardless of their own personal beliefs and the health care guidance they received from their own physicians — should still be denied contraception covered through their insurance.
What Experts Say
Mara Keisling, the executive director of the National Center for Transgender Equality (NCTE), said in a statement, “By appointing Mr. Severino to enforce the life-saving protections that he has made his personal mission to dismantle, the Trump administration has once again put the fox in charge of the hen house. He has made attacking women’s and LGBT people’s access to health care one of the centerpieces of his career, while his baseless claims about protections for transgender people — repeated over and over without any regard for the consequences on transgender people’s lives — betray a fundamental misunderstanding of federal civil rights laws, medical science, the reality of what it means to be transgender. Mr. Severino is now in a position to transform his dangerous rhetoric into action that can inflict serious harm on the lives of millions of Americans. We cannot let this happen.”
Echoes JoDee Winterhof, senior vice president of policy and public affairs at the Human Rights Campaign (HRC), in a statement: “I could not think of a more dangerous person to head up the Office of Civil Rights at HHS. Once again, Donald Trump is declaring war against our community by appointing anti-LGBTQ people at all levels of his administration. Mr. Severino takes pride in being a stark opponent of the LGBTQ community and has made it clear that his number one priority is to vilify and degrade us. We will fight tooth and nail against any attempts to roll back civil rights including access to healthcare.”
And Sen. Murray also issued a statement in response to Severino’s appointment several weeks ago, saying, “I am deeply troubled but unfortunately not surprised to learn of this appalling hire by the Trump Administration. Not only is this a stark example of the concerning employment decisions and hiring practices being established by this Administration, but it speaks volumes to their broader failure to uphold and protect civil rights, particularly when it comes to the LGBTQ community. Secretary Price has an obligation to fight discrimination in all lifesaving programs administered by the Department and to ensure that political appointees and career employees are truly committed to carrying out the responsibilities of the agency to protect and serve all Americans — and I will do everything I can to make sure he is held accountable.”
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