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Lawsuit Seeks Information About Trump’s Secretive Health-Care Discrimination Division

Jessica Mason Pieklo

“This administration is prioritizing religious beliefs over patients’ access to care,” said Gretchen Borchelt, NWLC vice president for reproductive rights and health. “It’s a perversion of HHS’ mission that cannot be ignored.”

Advocates on Thursday sued the Trump administration after officials refused to release records related to a new division within the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) tasked with enforcing laws allowing for health-care discrimination.

Attorneys filed the lawsuit in federal court in Washington, D.C., on behalf of the Center for Reproductive Rights and the National Women’s Law Center (NWLC). The lawsuit names HHS as a defendant.

The Trump administration in January announced it was launching a Conscience and Religious Freedom Division of the Office for Civil Rights (OCR) of HHS. Roger Severino, the staunchly anti-LGBTQ head of the HHS civil rights office, said the new division would “help guarantee that victims of unlawful discrimination”—health-care providers with objections to caring for disproportionately vulnerable patients—”find justice.”

“No one should be forced to choose between helping sick people and living by one’s deepest moral or religious convictions,” Severino, who opposes anti-discrimination laws for transgender people, said in January.

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Shortly after the administration announced the health-care discrimination division, attorneys from the advocacy organizations filed a Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) request with the administration, seeking records relating to complaints filed with the HHS Office for Civil Rights. Advocates filed a second FOIA request with the administration in March. 

The administration has failed to answer either request, according to the allegations in Thursday’s lawsuit. 

“The Trump-Pence administration has repeatedly and unconstitutionally misused the concept of religious liberty to deny essential reproductive health services and embolden those who want to discriminate,” Maya Rupert, senior director of policy and managing director at the D.C. Office of the Center for Reproductive Rights, said in a statement. “Given this administration’s open hostility to reproductive health and rights, LGBTQ rights, and access to health care for everyone in this country, the public deserves a full accounting of the new division and how it has been using its enforcement powers.” 

Advocates allege that HHS has refused to release information about how this new division operates, how it is allocating resources, whether and how its decision making is influenced by outside groups, and why the administration felt it was necessary to create the health-care discrimination division.

“This administration is prioritizing religious beliefs over patients’ access to care,” Gretchen Borchelt, NWLC vice president for reproductive rights and health, said in a statement. “It’s a perversion of HHS’ mission that cannot be ignored.”

Creating the division within HHS is not the Trump administration’s only attempt to expand religious denials of care. In January, HHS proposed a rule that if enacted could drastically expand the authority and scope of its enforcement around refusal-of-care laws. The administration was accepting comments on the rule through the end of  March, but has not yet published the final version of that rule, nor has the administration responded to Thursday’s lawsuit. 

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