Lambda Legal, HIV and Medical Groups Urge Rescission of Bush-Era Regulations Threatening Health Care Access

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"The government must not invite or sanction discrimination against people with HIV or LGBT patients."
April 6, 2009

(Washington D.C., April 6, 2009) — The eleventh-hour Bush Administration expansion of federal rules prohibiting discrimination against health care workers on a religious basis was unnecessary and confusing, and even endangers public health, according to a letter submitted today to the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) by Lambda Legal and the National Coalition for LGBT Health, along with 36 other health and HIV advocacy and medical care groups.


The new regulations went into effect on December 19, 2008. At that time, HHS claimed they were needed to protect employees of organizations receiving HHS funds from having to perform procedures they find religiously or morally objectionable. But the 14-page letter says the regulations are so broad and vague that they could give wide latitude to health care workers to discriminate against co-workers or patients who are lesbian, gay, bisexual or transgender or living with HIV.


"Federal law already rightly guarantees workers broad protections against religiously motivated discrimination," said Lambda Legal Senior Counsel Jennifer C. Pizer. "But everyone would agree that those protections cannot be absolute — they wouldn't allow a Jehovah's Witness surgeon to withhold blood transfusions from patients based on the doctor's religious objection, for example. These regulations — which can be seen as expanding existing protections so health care workers can harass co-workers or choose to treat some patients, but not others — should be rescinded, as the government is now proposing to do."


Studies show that anti-LGBT bias is a persistent problem among health care providers, and religious disapproval of gay people frequently contributes to that. In August, 2008, the California Supreme Court ruled in a Lambda Legal case that religion cannot be used as a legal excuse for doctors to deny infertility treatment to Oceanside lesbian Lupita Benítez. Her doctors had claimed that California's constitutional protections of religion allowed them to refuse to inseminate her after 11 months of preparatory medications and surgical treatments, but the high court disagreed unanimously.


"If HHS's new regulations are allowed to remain in effect, they will have a negative impact on health care for a great many Americans," said Rebecca Fox, director of the National Coalition for LGBT Health. "In a country where so many people struggle to access quality health care, HHS created another barrier. These regulations are particularly harmful for LGBT Americans, many of whom already fear being out to their health care providers and struggle to find and afford respectful, good quality medical care."


HHS has now proposed rescinding the regulations. If that does not occur, the regulations could cause confusion in everything ranging from who receives care to which organizations can receive federal funding and may result in federally funded programs and health care providers inappropriately refusing to treat LGBT or HIV positive patients in a medically sound, respectful manner.


"The Bush Administration put people with HIV at risk with these unnecessary regulations," said Bebe J. Anderson, director of Lambda Legal's HIV Project. "Unfortunately, discrimination and ignorance towards people with HIV are still common. The government must not invite or sanction discrimination against people with HIV or LGBT patients."


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Contact: Jason Pérez Howe: 213-382-7600 ext. 247; Email: jhowe@lambdalegal.org.

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