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Out Black congressmen to CDC: require insurers to cover injectable PrEP

“We urge you to ensure that public and private insurance plans cover Apretude at no cost to patients — just like the other forms of PrEP”

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U.S. Capitol building (Blade file photo)

WASHINGTON – A pair of the openly gay Black members are leading a group of 58 House Democrats in calling on the Biden administration to require medical insurers to cover PrEP in its recently FDA-approved form as an injectable HIV preventative drug.

In a letter dated Feb. 4 and made public on Thursday, Reps. Ritchie Torres (D-N.Y.) and Mondaire Jones (D-N.Y.) lead colleagues in urging the Centers for Medicare & Medicaid and the Centers for Disease Control to issue the new requirements for Apretude, which the Food & Drug Administration approved for use in December.

“To ensure that this life-saving medication is as accessible as possible to the people who need it most, particularly LGBTQ+ people and people of color, we urge you to ensure that public and private insurance plans cover Apretude at no cost to patients — just like the other forms of PrEP,” the letter says.

While PrEP has emerged in recent years as an HIV prevention treatment in the form of a daily pill, commonly Truvada, the injectable drug offers patients as potential alternative or those who may experience pill fatigue with a shot expected to be taken one month apart, and then every two months thereafter, according to the FDA. ViiV is the manufacturer of Apretude and expects to start shipping it to wholesalers and distributors early this year, according to the company website.

If the U.S. government were to issue rules requiring insurers to cover injectable PrEP, it would follow-up on earlier actions to make HIV prevention drugs more widely available. The CDC under the Trump administration made free PrEP available to those without insurance coverage, while the Biden administration issued requirements to make insurers include PrEP as part of their coverage.

According to a statement accompanying the letter, however, significant racial disparities remain in PrEP use: “While the HIV infection rate among Black Americans is eight times as high as among white Americans, just nine percent of the Black Americans for whom PrEP is recommended have been prescribed the medication, compared to 66 percent of their white counterparts. Similarly, while the HIV infection rate among Hispanic Americans is four times as high as among white Americans, only 16 percent of recommended Hispanic Americans have been prescribed PrEP.”

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Congress

House passes resolution demanding Brittney Griner’s immediate release

Detained WNBA star’s trial to begin on July 1

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A participant in the Capital Pride parade parade in D.C. demands Brittney Griner's release. (Washington Blade photo by Michael Key)

WASHINGTON — In a resolution passed on June 24 by the U.S. House of Representatives, lawmakers called on Russia to immediately release detained WNBA star Brittney Griner. 

Griner was first arrested in Russia in the days leading up to its invasion in Ukraine. Authorities have charged her with drug trafficking after claiming that she attempted to pass through Moscow’s Sheremetyevo Airport while in possession of cannabis oil. 

The House’s resolution, introduced in May by U.S. Reps. Greg Stanton (D-Ariz.), Sheila Jackson Lee (D-Tex.) and Colin Allred (D-Texas), made multiple demands of Russia, including that the country “immediately release Brittney Griner,” provide her with consular access and humane treatment and that the U.S. “raise the case of Brittney Griner and to press for her release” in all its dealings with the Russian government.

“This legislation insists on our embassy personnel having access to Ms. Griner and restates our commitment to freeing her now,” Lee said in a statement after introducing the resolution. “We continue to pray for her family and we will continue to work together as three members of Congress, along with others, to spread the message that she is held wrongfully and must be freed now.”

The resolution also expressed support for both Griner’s family and for “all prisoners unjustly imprisoned in the Russian Federation.”

Allred, a member of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, took to Twitter following the passage of the resolution.

“I’m proud the House has spoken in passing our resolution and calling for Brittney Griner’s swift release,” Allred wrote. “Every day an American is held abroad is a lifetime, and I will keep working with @POTUS to do all we can to bring home every American detained abroad.”

Griner’s WNBA team, the Phoenix Mercury, welcomed the House’s passage of the resolution this past weekend.

“[Rep.] Stanton and many others are continuing to work with the White House, State Department and Brittney’s family to secure her safe return home,” the team wrote on Twitter.

The resolution comes after reporting revealed missteps on the part of the U.S. government in handling communication related to Griner’s detention. 

According to past reporting, the U.S. Embassy in Moscow failed to connect Griner with outside phone calls permitted by the Russian government when Griner’s wife, Cherelle Griner, attempted to call her. Cherelle Griner reportedly called 11 times on June 18 on the couple’s fourth anniversary but was unable to reach her wife due to what the State Department claimed to be a “logistical error.”

While the resolution is being heralded by its supporters, it contains no provisions intended to enforce the House’s demands for the release and humane treatment of Griner and others held by Russia. With less than one percent of criminal defendants in Russia being acquitted, it is unclear whether the resolution will do anything to persuade the country’s courts to permit Griner’s release.

Griner appeared in Russian court on Monday for a preliminary hearing prior to her trial that has now been scheduled to begin on July 1. It was also confirmed by Griner’s attorney on Monday that her detention had been extended for six months pending her trial. 

If convicted, she could face up to 10 years in prison.

“We must keep Brittney’s case on the forefront and make clear to the White House that her release should be one of the highest priorities for our government,” Cherelle Griner said in May.

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GOP senator willing to delay school meal funding over LGBTQ+ guidance

Funding for school meal & nutrition programs is set to expire July 30, a delay could lead to a hunger crisis for millions of schoolchildren

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Photo of a typical school lunch via the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA)

WASHINGTON – A bipartisan piece of legislation for school meal programs is at risk after one U.S. senator has signaled he may delay its passage over LGBTQ-related guidance from the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

The Keep Kids Fed Act, released Tuesday by Sens. Debbie Stabenow (D-Mich.) and John Boozman (R-Ark.) and Reps. Bobby Scott (D-Va.) and Virginia Foxx (R-N.C.), has already garnered support from both sides of the aisle as it seeks to provide roughly $3 billion in continued funding for pandemic-era universal school nutrition programs.

“My agreement with Senator Boozman, Representative Scott and Representative Foxx will help keep kids fed and is fully paid for,” Senator Debbie Stabenow, chair of the Agriculture, Nutrition and Forestry Committee, said in a statement. “With 90% of our schools still facing challenges as they return to normal operations, this will give our schools and summer meal programs much-needed support to deal with ongoing food service issues.”

The legislation would provide additional federal funding to programs established during the COVID-19 outbreak designed to waive financial requirements for all students and allow them to access free school meals throughout the year.

However, guidance issued in May by the U.S. Department of Agriculture that prohibits school nutrition programs receiving federal dollars from discriminating against the LGBTQ community has sparked reservations in Congress that could endanger the funding’s ability to pass before its deadline.

On Wednesday, one day after the bipartisan deal was announced, Senator Roger Marshall (R-Kan.) signaled that he would consider objecting to the bill for fear that the USDA guidance would ultimately exclude schools in his state from being eligible to receive the funding.

“This administration is holding women’s sports as ransom for the radical woke agenda,” Marshal said at a press conference on Thursday. “Now, they’re going to do the same thing with school lunches. They want kids to go hungry at school that don’t fall in line with letting boys play girls sports.”

Further indicating his opposition to the USDA guidance that could persuade him to object to the meal funding, Marshall attempted to turn the tables on the Biden administration for not allowing meal programs in schools to act on their discriminatory beliefs. 

“In these trying times where families are faced with rising inflation, the Biden administration is considering taking food out of the mouths of hungry children over their woke agenda,” Marshall said.

But while the press conference was centered around the 50th anniversary of the landmark anti-sex-discrimination Title IX legislation and the issue of transgender athletes in school sports, the USDA guidance only pertains to discrimination within school nutrition programs funded with federal dollars. Under the language of the guidance, equal access and non-discrimination would be required toward only those involved with the meal programs, like LGBTQ students. 

Other programs under a school district’s jurisdiction like sports programs, that may attempt to limit participation by transgender athletes, would not have any relevance to nor would affect the school’s ability to receive federal meal funding like that in the Keep Kids Fed Act.

Current pandemic-era funding for school meal and nutrition programs is set to expire on July 30. Although the funding has bipartisan support, the looming deadline to pass more funding increases the chances that a delay could lead to a hunger crisis for millions of schoolchildren around the nation.

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Schiff, Chu introduce bill to decrease LGBTQ+ surrogacy costs

Measure has 17 Democratic co-sponsors

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U.S. Rep. Adam Schiff (D-Calif.) (Screenshot)

WASHINGTON — As the future of reproductive rights in the U.S. remain uncertain, U.S. Reps. Adam Schiff (D-Calif.) and Judy Chu (D-Calif.) introduced a bill on Wednesday aimed at equalizing healthcare access and lowering the costs for LGBTQ+ people and couples who want to have children. 

The Equal Access to Reproductive Care Act, co-sponsored by 17 other Democratic members of the U.S. House of Representatives and endorsed by multiple reproductive rights groups and LGBTQ+ advocacy organizations, would seek to reform the nation’s tax system in order to crack down on certain inequities in reproductive healthcare for same-sex families. 

The bill would require the Internal Revenue Service to allow LGBTQ+ people and couples to claim assisted reproductive treatments as deductions, which decrease one’s net income that determines how much they must pay in taxes to the federal government.

Schiff has asserted that the current tax system, which already often allows heterosexual couples to claim assisted reproductive treatments as deductions, must be changed. 

“Every person regardless of their sexual orientation, gender identity, ability, or relationship status deserves the same opportunity to start and expand a family,” Schiff said in a statement introducing the bill. “But right now, our tax code is sorely outdated and makes it harder for LGBTQ+ individuals and couples to afford treatments to bring children into their families, such as [in vitro fertilization].”

According to the language of the bill, assisted reproductive treatments that would be made more financially accessible would include “any methods, treatments, procedures, and services for the purpose of effectuating a pregnancy and carrying it to term, including gamete and embryo donation, intrauterine insemination, in vitro fertilization, intracervical insemination, traditional reproductive surrogacy and gestational reproductive surgery.”

The IRS has, in the past, asserted that tax deductions for in vitro fertilization and other surrogacy-related costs can be classified as such due to the patient’s own medical conditions that cause infertility. While IVF treatment is included in IRS policy as an expense that could count as deductible, the policy includes it only as a treatment for an inability to have children. In the instance of same-sex couples or LGBTQ+ individuals, the IRS has argued that surrogacy and IVF are not needed as a result of a medical condition causing infertility, but rather a choice not to have one’s own children.

In a private letter ruling released in April 2021, the IRS detailed its reasoning for denying such deduction requests.

“Only costs and fees directly attributable to medical care for diagnosis, cure, mitigation, treatment, or prevention of disease, or for the purpose of affecting any structure or function of the body of the taxpayer, the taxpayer’s spouse, or taxpayer’s dependent qualify as eligible medical expenses,” the IRS wrote. “Expenses involving egg donation, IVF procedures, and gestational surrogacy incurred for third parties are not incurred for treatment of disease nor are they for the purpose of affecting any structure or function of taxpayers’ bodies.”

Past attempts to challenge the IRS’s policy have been unsuccessful in the court system. 

A 2016 lawsuit brought by Joseph Morrissey, a gay man seeking to have children with his partner via a surrogate, argued that the IRS violated the Constitution in denying his request to count the medical costs of surrogacy as a deduction. The U.S. Court of Appeals for the 11th Circuit later found that the IRS had not violated Morrissey’s constitutional rights, as the IVF-related care did not pertain to Morrissey’s biological ability to have children.

But in order to provide equitable healthcare to all Americans, Chu believes that passing her bill is necessary.

“Every American deserves access to quality reproductive care and the Equal Access to Reproductive Care Act will even the grounds for taxpaying families seeking deductions on reproductive expenses — regardless of sexual orientation, gender identity, ability status or marital status — and will ensure greater access and affordability for critical family planning care,” Chu said.

The lawmakers’ push to secure such equity in healthcare comes amid one of the most tumultuous times in the last half-century for such freedoms. As the nation awaits the U.S. Supreme Court’s decision in Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health Organization, many are skeptical of the court’s willingness to uphold any nationwide right to abortion and fear the broader affects such a decision could have on rights established by other past cases.

In stressing what he sees as the importance of ensuring reproductive freedoms, Schiff appeared to make a veiled reference to the impending decision in his statement. 

“Now more than ever, we must do everything we can to make sure everyone has access to affordable family planning care, and to protect people’s rights to make health care decisions for themselves and their families,” Schiff said.

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