HHS nixes plan to eliminate LGBT questions from elder survey

The US Department of Health & Human Services has reversed itself on a plan to eliminate questions allowing LGBT elders to identify their sexual orientation from a federal health survey amid pressure from LGBT advocates and members of Congress.

In a Federal Register notice set for publication on Thursday, HHS (Department of Health & Human Services) declared it made minor adjustments to plans to change the National Survey of Older Americans Act Participants, such as “retaining the primary question regarding sexual orientation.”

According to the notice, the Administration for Community Living changed its mind on eliminating the question after receiving comments in response to the proposal from 89 organizations and more than 13,900 individuals.

“The majority of the comments that ACL received expressed the need to retain demographic questions on sexual orientation/gender identity,” the notice says.

By saying HHS has decided to retain “the primary question regarding sexual orientation,” the notice suggests HHS will keep a question allowing respondents to identify their sexual orientation, but still eliminate a question allowing them to identify as transgender.

Rep. Ted Deutch (D-Fla.), vice chair of the LGBT Equality Caucus and Chair of the LGBT Aging Issues Task Force, claimed a partial victory in a statement after the HHS reversal.

“This was a victory, albeit incomplete, for the LGBT community,” Deutch said. “The Trump Administration heard us loud and clear, and reversed course to reinstate sexual orientation questions in the survey. By working together to defend LGBT seniors, we helped ensure that our government will track and address the unique barriers of LGB seniors in accessing federal aging programs.”

But Deutch added the reversal leaves much to be desired if the sexual orientation questions, but not the gender identity questions, are retained.

“I am dismayed that the ASL failed to include gender identity questions in the survey, which will leave out crucial data on transgender seniors and their unique struggles,” Deutch said. “As an advocate for the broad LGBT community, I will continue to fight to reinstate these questions.”

The department reverses itself on plans to eliminate the questions after publishing in March a plan to eliminate them in the Federal Register, the daily journal of the U.S. government that includes rule changes.

The notice provided 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.

At the time, HHS said the LGBT questions were part of a pilot test and removed because the sample response “has not been sufficient enough to date to allow for reliability and reporting.”

The planned elimination of the questions prompted outrage from LGBT advocates, who said the removal of questions effectively erases LGBT elders from federal health programming, as well as letters objecting to the change from 49 U.S. House members led by Deutch and 19 U.S. senators led by Sens. Susan Collins (R-Maine) and Bob Casey (D-Pa.).

Michael Adams, CEO of Services & Advocacy for GLBT Elders, or SAGE, was among those that protested the removal of the questions and said more work is needed for full LGBT inclusion in the survey.

“Thousands of LGBT elders and their allies forced the Trump administration to reverse course on their discriminatory plans,” Adams said. “But if the administration thinks that with this partial victory SAGE will now abandon trans elders, it’s in for a big surprise.”




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