Metro Weekly

Trump administration sued for refusing to answer freedom of information requests about HHS’s LGBTQ nondiscrimination rules

Lambda Legal believes outside groups may have influenced HHS officials to adopt anti-LGBTQ policies

Photo: Sarah Stierch

Lambda Legal has sued the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services over its refusal to release information and documents, including communications with outside organizations, relating to decisions about the ability of LGBTQ people to access health care services.

Lambda Legal previously filed three requests seeking such information under the Freedom of Information Act more than a year ago, hoping to find some discussion or justification for the Trump administration’s decision to suspend the publication and implementation of LGBTQ nondiscrimination rules and regulations.

Unfortunately, HHS has provided no records for any of Lambda Legal’s requests, prompting the LGBTQ legal advocacy organization to file suit in federal court. Additionally, the agency only partially responded to one of Lambda Legal’s FOIA requests, and did not respond to the other two at all.

“Since taking office, the Trump administration has sought to undermine the mission of the Department of Health and Human Services, and sought to promote discrimination against LGBTQ people in all spheres of life, particularly in health care,” Omar Gonzalez-Pagan, a senior staff attorney and health care strategist at Lambda Legal, said in a statement. “We deserve to know how and why they have made these decisions.”

One of the FOIA requests requested information on whether officials at HHS communicated with any one of nearly two dozen socially conservative think tanks or political organizations, including the Alliance Defending Freedom and the Heritage Foundation, and whether those communications influenced decisions on LGBTQ-related policies.

Another FOIA request asked for records belonging to, created by, addressed to, or sent to political appointees that mentioned, in whole or in part, discussed, referenced, or related to LGBTQ matters or people.

The third, a multi-part request, demanded records that mentioned or referred to HHS’s decision about whether to post, publish, or enforce any rule or regulation prohibiting discrimination on the basis of sex, sexual orientation, gender identity, gender expression, sex stereotypes, or transgender status against HHS employees, staff, contractors, or subcontractors, including the ability of LGBTQ individuals to access restrooms or other sex-designated facilities. That request also sought information about any decisions on rules or regulations prohibiting various forms of anti-LGBTQ discrimination in Medicare and Medicaid.

In December, after not hearing from HHS, Lambda Legal filed an administrative appeal, to which the department has also failed to respond.

The FOIA requests were prompted by reports that Trump administration appointees were overruling career staff and cancelling or delaying implementation of rules and initiatives dealing with reproductive health care and health care for LGBTQ people, including access to transition-related care.

Other reports claimed that HHS had worked with outside organizations to try and undermine existing nondiscrimination protections for LGBTQ people. Such actions included creating a new “Conscience and Religious Freedom” division within HHS to allow health care workers to refuse to perform procedures or provide certain types of health care if they have moral or religious objections to a person’s medical decisions — which has since been bolstered by a Trump executive order enumerating those “religious liberty” or “conscience protections.”

As part of its lawsuit, filed in the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of New York, Lambda Legal asks the court to compel HHS to provide responses to its FOIA requests, arguing that the agency has had sufficient time to find and share the information requested on communications related to LGBTQ health care. The organization also asks that HHS pay its attorney fees and other compensation for its work.

“Transparency and accountability are cornerstones of our democracy, and the Freedom of Information Act is a vital part of citizens’ ability to understand how the government works and hold politicians accountable,” Gonzalez-Pagan said. “HHS cannot be allowed to flout our laws, to devise discriminatory policies behind closed doors, and to work in the dark with outside organizations in order to promote discrimination against LGBTQ people.”

John Riley is the local news reporter for Metro Weekly. He can be reached at jriley@metroweekly.com

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