HHS Expands Affordable Care Act Protections to LGBTQ+ Community

New rule reverses Trump-era policy

Brody Levesque | Washington Blade, Courtesy of the National LGBT Media Association

The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services Office for Civil Rights has issued a final rule on Friday under Section 1557 of the Affordable Care Act advancing protections against discrimination in health care prohibiting discrimination based on race, color, national origin, age, disability, or sex (including pregnancy, sexual orientation, gender identity, and sex characteristics), in covered health programs or activities. 

The updated rule does not force medical professionals to provide certain types of health care but rather ensures nondiscrimination protections so that providers cannot turn away patients based on individual characteristics such as being lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, queer, intersex, or pregnant.

“This rule ensures that people nationwide can access health care free from discrimination,” said HHS Secretary Xavier Becerra. “Standing with communities in need is critical, particularly given increased attacks on women, trans youth, and health care providers. Health care should be a right not dependent on looks, location, love, language, or the type of care someone needs.”

U.S. Department of Health and Human Services Secretary Xavier Becerra. Public domain photo
U.S. Department of Health and Human Services Secretary Xavier Becerra. Public domain photo

The new rule restores and clarifies important regulatory protections for LGBTQ+ people and other vulnerable populations under Section 1557, also known as the health care nondiscrimination law, that the Trump administration previously rescinded.

“Healthcare is a fundamental human right. The rule released today restores critical regulatory nondiscrimination protections for those who need them most and ensures a legally proper reading of the Affordable Care Act’s healthcare nondiscrimination law,” said Omar Gonzalez-Pagan, counsel and health care strategist for Lambda Legal.

“The Biden administration today reversed the harmful, discriminatory, and unlawful effort by the previous administration to eliminate critical regulatory protections for LGBTQ+ people and other vulnerable populations, such as people with limited English proficiency, by carving them out from the rule and limiting the scope of entities to which the rule applied,” Gonzalez-Pagan added. “The rule released today has reinstated many of these important protections, as well as clarifying the broad, intended scope of the rule to cover all health programs and activities and health insurers receiving federal funds. While we evaluate the new rule in detail, it is important to highlight that this rule will help members of the LGBTQ+ community — especially transgender people, non-English speakers, immigrants, people of color, and people living with disabilities — to access the care they need and deserve, saving lives and making sure healthcare professionals serve patients with essential care no matter who they are.”

In addition to rescinding critical regulatory protections for LGBTQ+ people, the Trump administration’s rule also limited the remedies available to people who face health disparities and limited access to health care for people with Limited English Proficiency, dramatically reducing the number of healthcare entities and health plans subject to the rule.

Lambda Legal, along with a broad coalition of LGBTQ+ advocacy groups, filed a lawsuit challenging the Trump administration rule, Whitman-Walker Clinic v. HHS, and secured a preliminary injunction preventing key aspects of the Trump rule from taking effect.

These included the elimination of regulatory protections for LGBTQ+ people and the unlawful expansion of religious exemptions, which the new rule corrects. The preliminary injunction in Whitman-Walker Clinic v. HHS remains in place. Any next steps in the case will be determined at a later time, after a fulsome review of the new rule.

GLAAD President Sarah Kate Ellis released the following statement in response to the news:

“The Biden administration’s updates to rules regarding Section 1557 of the ACA will ensure that no one who is LGBTQI or pregnant can face discrimination in accessing essential health care. This reversal of Trump-era discriminatory rules that sought to single out Americans based on who they are and make it difficult or impossible for them to access necessary medical care will have a direct, positive impact on the day to day lives of millions of people. Today’s move marks the 334th action from the Biden-Harris White House in support of LGBTQ people. Health care is a human right that should be accessible to all Americans equally without unfair and discriminatory restrictions. LGBTQ Americans are grateful for this step forward to combat discrimination in health care so no one is barred from lifesaving treatment.”

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