March 20, 2017 at 6:00 pm PDT | by Chris Johnson
HHS seeks to dump LGBT elders from U.S. health survey
LGBT seniors, gay news, Washington Blade

HHS is seeking to eliminate a question for LGBT elders in a health survey.

LGBT advocacy groups are opposing the Trump administration’s announced plans to remove questions seeking to identify gay, lesbian and bisexual elders in a U.S. health survey, saying the move represents a systematic plan to undermine LGBT progress.

Services & Advocacy for LGBT Elders announced Monday the launch of a campaign to oppose the Department of Health & Human Services’ proposed elimination of the questions from the National Survey of Older Americans Act Participants, or NSOAAP. The survey is intended to evaluate the effectiveness of programs funded by the Older Americans Act, such as services for home-delivered meals, homemaker services and the National Family Caregiver Support Program.

Michael Adams, CEO of SAGE, said in a statement the proposed change jeopardizes assurances LGBT elders will receive benefits under those programs.

“Caring about our LGBT elders means making sure they have access to publicly funded senior services, which can be literally life-saving,” Adams said. “Now, it appears that the Trump administration wants to make believe LGBT older people don’t exist, by erasing them from this critically important survey. We insist that this decision be reversed and that the federal government commit to serving all elders in need, including those who are LGBT.”

The Trump administration announced plans to remove the sexual-orientation questions from the NSOAAP shortly after the confirmation of Tom Price as secretary of health and human services.

As a U.S. lawmaker, Price had an anti-LGBT record, including support for a U.S. constitutional amendment banning same-sex marriage nationwide and opposition to hate crimes protections legislation, “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” repeal and a version of the Employment Non-Discrimination Act. In 2013, Price participated in an event call hosted by Tea Party Unity and said a caller was “absolutely right” about potentially negative health and fiscal impacts of measures promoting LGBT rights.

The declaration that HHS was considering eliminating the notices was published March 13 in the Federal Register, the daily journal of the U.S. government that includes rule changes.

LGBT elders or questions on U.S. surveys are nowhere explicitly found in the notice. Instead, the notice provides a link to descriptions of previous surveys and a link to a proposed draft of the 2017 survey, incorrectly saying there will “no change” to the new survey. But a look at the survey reveals a change: The elimination of a question on whether respondents identify as lesbian, gay or bisexual, which had been included in each annual survey since 2014.

According to the notice, federal agencies are required under the Paperwork Reduction Act to allow 60 days for a public comment period on changes in the collection of information and those are due May 12.

Laura Durso, vice president for LGBT research and communications at the Center for American Progress, said in a statement the proposed roll back makes it impossible to know whether the Department of Health and Human Services is equitably serving LGBT people in need.

“Without the information provided in these surveys, we can’t ensure that LGBT seniors have equal access to important government services or that LGBT people with disabilities have equal access to independent living services that empower them to live full and self-determined lives,” Durso said. “We can’t ensure that the administration is fulfilling its duty to eliminate the barriers that shut vulnerable LGBT people out of the safety net. By walking back data collection on LGBT populations, this administration is saying that they would rather erase disparities than end them.”

No question in the survey ever addressed transgender status. Even during the Obama years, the U.S. government never included a question in its surveys seeking to identify the transgender population in the United States, citing difficulty in asking the questions and being assured of responses. The absence of those questions was a source of frustration at the National Center for Transgender Equality, which collected its own information on the transgender population in its 2015 U.S. Transgender Survey.

Kelly Mack, an HHS spokesperson, said in response to the criticism the question on sexual orientation was included in previous surveys as part of a trial effort, but is now being eliminated because it didn’t yield sufficient information.

“The questions have been included in previous ACL surveys as part of a pilot test,” Mack said. “These pilot questions are no longer proposed for inclusion in the surveys. The sample size of responses to these questions while piloted has not been sufficient enough to date to allow for reliability and reporting.”

Mack added HHS will seek to receive public comment on the proposed 2017 survey for an additional 30 days beyond the 60 days required under the Paperwork Reduction Act. A clarification for the Federal Register notice, Mack said, will “be out soon to highlight the proposed changes.”

The proposed elimination of the questions on sexual orientation in the NSOAAP is the latest move from the Trump administration to reverse administrative changes in favor of LGBT people seen under President Obama.

Most notably, one such change was the elimination of guidance to schools assuring transgender kids have access to the restroom consistent with their gender identity. Earlier this month, the Department of Housing & Urban Development also withdrew plans seeking to ensure homeless shelters notify transgender people they can’t be subject to discrimination there and for a survey to evaluate the effectiveness of the LGBTQ Youth Homelessness Prevention Initiative.

Mara Keisling, executive director of the National Center for Transgender Equality, drew a contrast in a statement between these LGBT rollbacks and the State Department’s appointment of anti-LGBT activists to the U.S. delegation to the U.N.’s 61st annual Commission on the Status of Women.

“Apparently, President Trump doesn’t want the government to know, or want anyone else to know, basic information about the lives of LGBT older Americans, LGBT people with disabilities, or LGBT youth facing homelessness,” Keisling said. “He doesn’t want people to know they can’t be kicked out of shelters for being LGBT. But he does want a group like C-FAM — which promotes ugly lies and slurs about transgender people—to represent our country to the world.”

Chris Johnson is Chief Political & White House Reporter for the Washington Blade. Johnson attends the daily White House press briefings and is a member of the White House Correspondents' Association. Follow Chris

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