The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services published a Notice of Proposed Rulemaking on Tuesday for a new regulation that clarifies nondiscrimination rules on the basis of sexual orientation and gender identity.
“The department is doing all that it can to protect access to health and human services,” Melanie Fontes Rainer, director of HHS’s Office of Civil Rights, told the Washington Blade by phone on Tuesday.
“This proposed rule is a step in that effort,” she said.
Health programs administered by the agency are covered by the nondiscrimination rules in Section 1557 of the Affordable Care Act, Fontes Rainer said, so, “This rule is meant to get to that other slice of the pie that encompasses really important work at the Department of Human Services.”
Nondiscrimination, here, is a priority, “specifically nondiscrimination on the basis of sexual orientation and gender identity,” she said.
If finalized pursuant to the 60-day public comment period, HHS’s rule will apply to such programs as those administered by the “Administration for Children and Families, SAMHSA, and some other organizations within HHS that have grants,” Fontes Rainer said.
Examples include Head Start, which provides educational, health, nutritional and other services to low income children and their families.
The agency’s legal authority to enforce inclusive nondiscrimination rules was statutorily ordained by Congress, but clarified with the U.S. Supreme Court’s 2020 ruling in Bostock v. Clayton County, which “made clear that sexual orientation and gender identity were part of this protected sex based discrimination class,” Fontes Rainer said.
The decision helped to accelerate the Biden-Harris administration’s coordination of efforts across the federal government to shore up protections for LGBTQ Americans, she noted, beginning with the Justice Department and then the U.S. Department of Education and HHS.
Those agencies and federal courts have since made clear the law applies not just in the Title VII context — which covers nondiscrimination in employment, the legal question at issue in Bostock — but also “to other federal programs like Title IX,” Fontes Rainer said.
HHS is coordinating efforts with the White House, which last month unveiled a series of new actions to better protect LGBTQ Americans, including through programs administered by HHS, such as those targeting queer youth and their families.
Last June, Fontes Rainer noted, the administration announced that the department’s Administration for Children and Families would pursue a new rule making to “clarify that state child welfare agencies must ensure LGBTQI youth are treated in a safe and appropriate manner.”
The agency’s rule “is inclusive of some grants and services that are inclusive of homelessness services for LGBTQI youth,” Fontes Rainer said. “That’s certainly a part of it. And this grants rule is certainly a part of that effort in the Human Services context.”
“It’s really important right now to have the federal government be strong in the LGBTQI space, whether it’s healthcare, human services or some other service that the federal government provides and [also to] be very clear about what non discrimination means,” she said. “Because, you know, there there is a tsunami of these [anti-trans] healthcare bans across the country.”
According to the Human Rights Campaign, almost 30 percent of transgender youth in the U.S. live in places that have passed bans on gender affirming care, criminalizing healthcare interventions that are backed by every mainstream scientific and medical society.
“We’re seeing a shift right now, where there are a lot of healthcare bans,” Fontes Rainer said. “And, I think, ultimately, these are decisions that are going to be taken into litigation in various contexts, which we’re already seeing across the country.”
Meanwhile, on the federal level, Congressional Republicans are moving to add riders restricting access to healthcare for trans youth into must-pass appropriations bills. Asked to respond to these efforts, Fontes Rainer was quick to note that, “my job is not on the legislative front, here.”
At the same time, she said, when it comes to HHS’s proposed regulation, for “every single program and service we’ve identified, these [nondiscrimination] protections already exist in the law,” so the agency is therefore confident that “we are on good authority and legal footing here.”
While the regulation and its implementation would be new, Fontes Rainer said, HHS is acting under its statutory authority as established long ago by the legislature.
Policy carries real impact on people, families
Last month, HHS hosted a Pride Summit, where officials at the agency from Fontes Rainer to Assistant Secretary Adm. Rachel Levine and Secretary Xavier Becerra, along with other high ranking members of the Biden-Harris administration like White House Press Secretary Karine Jean-Pierre, spoke about the government’s work advancing rights and protections for the LGBTQ community.
At the event, Becerra dedicated a portion of his remarks to recounting discussions he had with LGBTQ families about how his agency can better serve their needs across the various health and human services programs that comprise its book of business.
Fontes Rainer told the Blade she has participated in many of these conversations, with and without the secretary. “I have made a point to visit with providers, advocates, parents and kids, in many of the states that either have passed or are seeking to pass bans on healthcare for trans youth,” she said.
“Every time I have these conversations, I feel emotional afterwards,” she said. “For a lot of these kids and families, you know, they’re not asking for much. They’re asking to go to the doctor. They’re asking to be treated with respect. They’re asking to have the appropriate pronouns used — things that are very basic.”
The circumstances vary, Fontes Rainer said. Some families have the resources to travel or even relocate to states that are committed to protecting their transgender residents’ access to healthcare.
Others, however, do not. Parents, she said, often “don’t know what they’re gonna do as their child is [forcibly] tapered off of medication, mid treatment” and many are unsure how to respond to the resulting impacts on their child’s mental health.
Fontes Rainer said she has also seen the impacts of legislative restrictions on the healthcare system. “I’ve talked to providers who tell me that they provide gender affirming care in a state where it’s not banned and it’s impossible to get appointments now, because they have so many people traveling there,” she said.
“These efforts by the Biden administration, while they don’t solve everything, they’re really important — both in being strong on the policy and what the law means, but also in being very clear to parents and families and doctors that we have your back,” Fontes Rainer said.
“I’ve been in rooms with the secretary where people, providers, you know, hug him and cry,” she said, “because they feel like it’s really important to have somebody that understands the law in this moment, and they feel like it’s important that, you know, from the secretary on up to the president of the United States, they have support from the Biden administration.”
Fontes Rainer told the Blade she is proud of HHS’s legacy of leadership on LGBTQ rights. With a ceremony last year, the agency became the first to raise the Progress Pride flag, which includes colors to represent Black and brown LGBTQ communities and incorporates the stripes of the transgender Pride flag.
“Now, this year, almost every single agency did that,” she said, adding that last month, “my husband and I put up a Pride Unity flag in our yard” too.
“Right now is not the time to be shy,” Fontes Rainer said. “Now is not the time to like go hide in a hole. Now is the time to be loud and vocal and use your power for good.”
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