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Last Day to Stop the Health Dept. From Green-lighting Discrimination

Robin Maril

The Trump administration wants to allow doctors and nurses to turn us away, but we can stop them.

Since I joined the Human Rights Campaign seven years ago, I have seen tremendous changes in the fight for LGBTQ equality. Landmark decisions by the Supreme Court of the United States, coupled with Congressional actions including the repeal of "don't ask, don't tell," have transformed the lives of LGBTQ people nationwide for the better. But uncertainty still remains, and my office line often rings with calls from LGBTQ people with questions about how their lives will be affected.

One call in particular I carry with me to this day.

It came from a member of our military -- a woman who had served our country alongside her wife for almost a decade. After several years of serving apart, they were finally relocated to the same military base in rural Missouri. Thrilled to be together, they planned to start a family.

However, they soon learned that the on-base doctor they were assigned refused to provide them fertility services, solely because they are a same-sex couple. When they sought a doctor off-base, they were again refused by the nearest fertility clinic. When the couple finally found a clinic that would provide them with the health care they needed, it was a five-hour drive from their home.

Despite a decade of substantial progress on several fronts, the already-fragile protections for LGBTQ people in this country -- a patchwork of state and federal laws that allow acts of discrimination like those faced by the couple to slip through -- are being cemented by the Trump-Pence administration. What were once vague loopholes that allowed discrimination are being codified, with permanence as the goal.

This couple's story of frustrations and setbacks has stuck with me. Maybe it's because I had also just gone through a year of fertility treatments. Maybe it's because I am from a small town in Oklahoma that is also hours from a "big" city. Maybe it's because the couple was serving our country, and our country was turning its back on them.

Or, maybe, it's as simple as this: refusing to provide care to a person just because of who they are -- or love -- is wrong.

Appallingly, in January, the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services published a proposed regulation and announced a new division within its Office of Civil Rights specifically designed to make finding inclusive health care even more difficult than it was for this couple. It would increase enforcement and employ an expansive (and questionable) interpretation of federal so-called "conscience" protections for health care providers, empowering them to discriminate against LGBTQ people and others. Since learning of this, I can't stop thinking about how many more LGBTQ Americans could be harmed by this egregious proposal.

After all, that's precisely what the proposed HHS regulation is designed to do: prioritize the personal views of individual health care providers over patient well-being, regardless of the harm to LGBTQ people, women, and other vulnerable communities.The proposed regulation would send a message to all health care workers -- from surgeons to receptionists -- that they have a right to deny life-saving treatment. That's not hyperbole: the proposed regulation is dangerously silent when it comes to patient well-being.

Under the proposed regulations, which HHS estimates will cost $312 million to implement, physicians could feel empowered to step away from a dying patient -- even if they are the only one who could save them. That isn't health care. And it's not something that should ever be allowed by the federal government with taxpayer dollars.

How honest can LGBTQ patients be with their doctor if they know that they can be turned away simply because of who they are or who they love? LGBTQ people already routinely avoid getting the care they need because they fear discrimination at the hands of their providers. This regulation will do nothing but exacerbate this challenge.

In 2016, HHS recognized the impact of similar discrimination on health outcomes and proposed a rule barring discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation, gender identity, and religion as a condition of participation for the Medicare and Medicaid programs. The Trump administration, however, has abandoned this proposal and the people it aimed to protect.

It is imperative that citizens inform Congress of the inherent dangers of this regulation before the Tuesday's deadline on public comments -- click here to make your voice heard. We must leave no stone unturned in ensuring that all Americans, regardless of their background, receive basic fairness in their health care.

ROBIN MARIL is associate legal director here at HRC.

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Robin Maril