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LGBTQ community sees health care threat

Health care can be challenging for anyone these days, but getting the right services is especially daunting for the LGBTQ community, which has faced decades of discrimination and misunderstanding.

The creation last month of a Conscience and Religious Freedom Division in the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services is raising concerns among some health care and legal experts who fear the new division will have a negative impact on LGBTQ patient care.

“My best advice is to keep Lambda Legal on speed dial,” said Ulysses W. Burley III, a physician and founder of UBtheCURE, a social justice consulting company with a particular focus on HIV and AIDS awareness. “They are committed to fighting any cases of discrimination related to the establishment of this new division in court,” he said.

The Conscience and Religious Freedom Division was created to “restore federal enforcement of our nation’s laws that protect the fundamental and unalienable rights of conscience and religious freedom,” according to an HHS news release. In that same news release, Roger Severino, director of the department’s Office for Civil Rights, said, “No one should be forced to choose between helping sick people and living by one’s deepest moral or religious convictions, and the new division will help guarantee that victims of unlawful discrimination find justice.”

As The Washington Post noted in a recent story on the new HHS division, ” ‘Conscience protections’ have become a flash point in culture war debates, especially about contraception and LGBT rights, in recent years.”

Burley said it is “still unclear how this new division will play out in public,” but he noted, “All fingers point to protections for the health care provider’s beliefs over that of the care and safety of women, members of the (LGBTQ) community, and people living with HIV.”

Andie Baker, vice president of Howard Brown Health’s Center for Education, Research, and Advocacy, said the Chicago-based health care organization is concerned that the new HHS division may encourage some health care providers to deny “essential” health care to LGBTQ patients and that it will lead to “increased stigma and discrimination.”

“People are definitely scared because of the uncertainty of the situation,” said Scott A. Schoettes, counsel and HIV project director at Lambda Legal, a civil rights organization that works on behalf of the LGBTQ community and people living with HIV/AIDs.

Schoettes and Burley were members of the President’s Advisory Council on HIV/AIDS until last June, when they and four others resigned in protest over the Trump administration’s position on health issues.

While noting people are fearful because of what they’re seeing in the federal government, Schoettes said in a recent interview that people should not panic. There are, he said, “good people” still in the federal government and HHS who know what needs to be done to combat the HIV epidemic. They will, he predicted, “keep pushing back and implementing programs. … A lot of people are fighting on your side.”

While people who are lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, queer or questioning, intersex, asexual or pansexual, and their allies, are watching what develops with health care on a federal level, decisions made by state and local governments can also affect health care options and legal protections.

There is a “tremendous difference” between living in a “progressive” state with support and multiple health care choices and living in a state where there are fewer options, said Brian Mustanski, director of Northwestern University’s Institute for Sexual and Gender Minority Health and Wellbeing.

“Do what you can to support organizations that work to advance LGBTQ health and LGBTQ rights,” he said.