HHS withholding comments critical of loosening religious exemptions

Twitter icon
Facebook icon
LinkedIn icon
e-mail icon
Google icon
 - HHS

In October, the Trump administration had asked for public comments on how to reduce HHS regulations on religious and faith-based groups. Of the 12,302 comments received, the agency has only posted 80, which mostly back the administration’s efforts and attack Obama-era policies on abortion and treating transgender patients.

POLITICO cited HHS sources who said the agency hand-picked the comments it released. The agency’s official stance is there’s no requirement for it to publicly post all comments, because they were in a response to a request for information, not an official regulation. Of the 80 comments it has posted publicly, only nine were critical of the proposal to ease requirements for religiously affiliated healthcare organizations.

HHS’s moves in this area could allow more providers to deny services based on religious beliefs and reverse Obama-era policies like requiring providers that accept federal funding to serve transgender patients. Some organizations have interpreted that requirement not as a protection against transgender discrimination, but as a “transgender mandate” to provide treatments related to what is known as “gender confirmation surgery” by the American Society of Plastic Surgeons, also known as sex reassignment surgery or SRS.

Several of the published comments even repeat the same line, saying the organization or physicians “cannot comply with the Obama-era transgender mandate that requires us to put aside conscience convictions and medical judgment,” or they’ve “experienced pressure from government laws, regulations, policies or communications to alter your faith-based views.” Those exact phrases had been suggested by the Christian Medical and Dental Associations in its appeal to members to submit comments.

Other commenters went on to attack state and federal policies on abortion referrals, physician-assisted suicide and same-sex marriage, as well as Planned Parenthood and the Affordable Care Act.

“The sweeping powers afforded HHS by the Affordable Care Act, coupled with an administration pursuing policies that ran counter to the values of many in the faith community, opened the door to widespread discrimination against individuals and organizations of faith,” wrote Johnathan Imbody, vice president of government relations at the Christian Medical Association.

Imbody further suggested HHS should review a variety of policies that it said equate discrimination with “social activism agendas” and make sure there are “guarantees of freedom” for grant requests from groups which oppose premarital sex, same-sex marriage and abortion.

The few critical comments often referenced the U.S. Constitution and its separation of church and state, arguing that should extend to withholding federal funding from faith-based healthcare groups.

“A doctor can believe whatever he or she wants, but they have no right to impose those beliefs on their patients. We have separation of church and state in this country for a reason, and faith based organizations should not receive federal funding,” said one anonymous commenter.

The proposal is being overseen by Shannon Royce, head of HHS’s Center for Faith-based and Neighborhoods Partnerships. She said her team is “working through a review of the submissions.”

Royce herself, however, had been an active proponent of many of the same positions expressed by the supporting commenters in her previous role at the conservative Family Research Council. During her time as chief operating officer, the group described transgender people as “an attack on basic reality,” and arguing treatments like SRS are “arguably, a violation of medical ethics.”

HHS has already been under increased scrutiny for its political stances. A recent story in the Washington Post alleged researchers at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) were told to keep words like “transgender,” “fetus,” “diversity” and “science-based” out of the agency’s budget documents. The CDC’s director and a HHS spokesperson both denied the report.