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HHS Holds ‘Listening Session’ for Doctors—Some With Anti-Choice Views

Ally Boguhn & Christine Grimaldi

One doctor in attendance has supported a wide range of medically unnecessary measures designed to erode access to abortion care.

U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) Secretary Tom Price hosted a “listening session” with doctors Wednesday at the White House, where he “affirmed [the administration’s] commitment to put in place a health care system that’s responsive to the needs of patients and a system where doctors, families, and patients are making medical decisions,” according to an agency press release.

That “commitment” to allowing patients to make their own medical decisions evidently does not extend to abortion care given that some of the panelists fit in with the growing number of anti-choice extremists President Trump has installed at HHS.

At least two members of the panel of medical professionals have a history of anti-choice advocacy.

Listed among those in attendance was Dr. Ralph Alvarado, a primary care doctor and Kentucky state senator. Alvarado’s website listed his opposition to abortion rights and LGBTQ equality as a key issue for the lawmaker, writing that he is “100 percent pro-life and believe in defending the rights of the unborn child. I also believe in the sanctity of marriage between one man and one woman.”

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Alvarado served as vice chair of the state legislature committee that allowed a targeted regulation of abortion providers (TRAP) law he had co-sponsored in the state to proceed, though the measure ultimately failed. He vocally supported the state’s 20-week ban on abortion—a measure he co-sponsored based on the medically and scientifically unsupported claim that a fetus can feel pain at this point in a pregnancy. During his time in the Kentucky state legislature he also co-sponsored a laundry list of other anti-choice bills.

Dr. Robin L. Armstrong, described in the press release as an internist from Houston, was elected vice chairman of the Republican Party of Texas in 2006, according to a report from that year by the Associated Press. Armstrong reportedly pointed to his opposition to abortion rights as a key factor in his decision to become a Republican.

The Texas Republican Party in 2006 adopted a platform that opposed “the sale and use of ‘the morning after pill’ known as emergency contraception and the legalization of sodomy,” the AP report noted.

Armstrong is listed as a board member for anti-choice group Texas Alliance for Life on the organization’s website. He co-sponsored a resolution as a national committeeman from Texas at the Republican National Convention in 2014 asserting the party’s commitment to supporting anti-choice candidates and condemning those in the party who do not speak out against abortion rights.

The Texas Republican has participated in other White House events pushing the repeal of the Affordable Care Act (ACA), and appeared in a March 17 video published on the White House’s Facebook account on the topic. Armstrong in the video claimed he opposed the ACA, or Obamacare, because in Texas he had seen how it had hurt his patients, including the poor.

Texas, however, is one of the states that has refused to expand Medicaid through the ACA, turning down billions that would have helped insure people with low incomes. Texas Republicans’ refusal to expand Medicaid “has left many low-income Texans less able to afford their medical bills, to pay for needed prescription drugs, and to obtain regular care for chronic conditions,” according to a 2016 analysis by the Commonwealth Fund. 

The listening session came amid attempts by the Trump administration and congressional Republicans to roll back reproductive rights on a number of fronts. Price hosted the meeting with Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services Administrator Seema Verma, who flanked Trump and prominent anti-choice leaders in April as he signed the death knell to federal Title X family planning protections for people with low incomes.

Price believes “there’s not one” woman who can’t afford birth control—and he’s testing that theory by working with other agencies to blow up Obamacare’s popular no-cost birth control benefit via the federal rulemaking process. And in the GOP-controlled U.S. Congress, dueling House of Representatives and Senate visions of how to repeal Obamacare, along with the upcoming appropriations process that could yet again put Title X in the crosshairs, are poised to restrict access to contraception and abortion care.

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