Push to Abolish Trump’s Health-Care Discrimination Wing Underway in Congress

Rep. Michelle Lujan Grisham’s legislation is unlikely to advance through the GOP-held U.S. House of Representative, but it underscores what advocates for reproductive rights and LGBTQ equality have called a license to discriminate.

[Photo: Michelle Lujan Grisham speaks at a podium with dozens of of Democratic members of the House of Representatives standing behind her.]
Rep. Michelle Lujan Grisham (D-NM) unveiled legislation to abolish the so-called Conscience and Religious Freedom Division. Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images

A prominent Democrat in the U.S. House of Representatives is taking on the Trump administration’s health-care discrimination wing.

Rep. Michelle Lujan Grisham (D-NM), chair of the Congressional Hispanic Caucus, unveiled legislation on Tuesday to abolish the so-called Conscience and Religious Freedom Division within the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services’ Office of Civil Rights. Under anti-LGBTQ activist Roger Severino, the division is doubling down on “conscience protections” that provide an out to health-care providers who don’t want to treat LGBTQ patients or provide reproductive health care such as contraception, miscarriage management, and abortion care. The division draws much of its power from regulations crafted in the name of “religious freedom,” or religious imposition.

Lujan Grisham, a member of the House Pro-Choice Caucus and the Congressional LGBT Equality Caucus, said in a statement on Tuesday that the division “was created with the sole purpose of allowing hospitals, doctors, nurses, and even administrative staff to determine a patient’s care based on their personal religious beliefs, not on what is best for the patient.”

“I am proud to introduce this legislation to ensure that every American, regardless of their gender identity, reproductive health care choices, or need for any type of medical care, has access to quality, comprehensive health care,” she said. 

Federal and state laws already provide a web of conscience protections for health-care workers. LGBTQ people, however, routinely face “discrimination and mistreatment” from their providers, according to new data from the Center for American Progress.

Daniel Bryant-Gawne, a transgender man, recently shared one such discriminatory experience with the National Center for Transgender Equality.

Daniel was “treated differently from other patients with the same health conditions,” according to a blog post from the organization explaining that health care in the United States already works against transgender patients. “He was forced to undergo repeated invasive and extensive tests to confirm his illnesses and was even denied for a mastectomy to remove a 10-year-old tumor in his chest tissue. Despite the fact that cisgender women are routinely referred for surgical intervention for tumors that may potentially lead to breast cancer, Daniel’s request was ignored with insufficient review.”

So-called conscience protections have long undermined reproductive health care, whether in the form of contraception or common medications and procedures to facilitate a miscarriage or an abortion.

Lujan Grisham’s legislation is unlikely to advance through the GOP-held House, but it underscores what advocates for reproductive rights and LGBTQ equality have called a license to discriminate. Though a Lujan Grisham spokesperson told Rewire that there’s no companion bill in the Republican-majority U.S. Senate, some Democrats across the Capitol have criticized the Trump-era health-care discrimination wing.

Sen. Patty Murray (D-WA) expressed concern about wielding the civil rights office “as a tool to restrict access to health care for people who are transgender and women.”

Any approach that would deny or delay health care to someone and jeopardize their wellbeing for ideological reasons is unacceptable,” she said in a statement around the time of the health-care discrimination wing’s January launch. “We need to work to ensure everyone has access to quality, affordable health care, no matter who they are.”

Sen. Richard Blumenthal (D-CT) agreed.

“Permitting providers to discriminate against patients in need of medical care merely for ideological reasons is simply wrong,” he said in a separate statement at the time.

Lujan Grisham echoed those messages on Tuesday in unveiling her bill.

“A patient’s health and wellness should always come first and the Trump Administration has no business facilitating discrimination and creating barriers for medically necessary health care that will ultimately harm patient health and endanger lives,” she said.