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Under the Trump Administration, some federal government websites have been going through a bit of a disappearing act when it comes to information and wording.
Last year, the CDC made headlines when words like “transgender” and “fetus” were reportedly banned from official reports. And shortly after Donald Trump’s inauguration in January 2017, it seemed that the judicial branch was playing a game of hide-and-seek with web page visitors when it disappeared off of certain menus.
In the latest case, the government has reportedly deleted information relating to gender discrimination from the Affordable Care Act webpage. Experts say the omission could keep LGBT individuals and women from accessing important information about their rights, protecting them from discrimination.
The Sunlight Foundation, a group that uses technology to pursue government transparency, reported that the Health and Human Services Department’s Office for Civil Rights removed the term “sex stereotyping” from multiple web pages, along with information about discrimination due to gender identity or past abortions and guidelines for treating transgender patients.
NEW: HHS civil rights office removed language about sex discrimination from webpages about Sec 1557, the Affordable Care Act's nondiscrimination provision. Experts say the removals signal a shift in policy regarding prohibitions on sex discrimination. https://t.co/MnzP9OlkEm
— Sunlight Web Integrity Project (@SunWebIntegrity) July 19, 2018
The Sunlight Foundation posted a detailed report on the changes as part of their Web Integrity Project (WIP) on July 17. They credited the National Women’s Law Center with first noticing the changes which, according to web archives, took place between March and August 2017.
The changes are buried in Section 1557 of the ACA, also known as the Health Care Rights Law. Under this law, it is illegal for health care providers to deny a patient treatment because they are transgender, had an abortion, or are in a same-sex relationship.
Advocates and experts say the disappearances could preempt a policy change regarding sex discrimination amid an ongoing legal battle with some religiously-affiliated health care providers.
In a 2016 case, these providers argued that the guidelines would “require them to perform and provide insurance coverage for gender transitions and abortions,” which go against their religious values. The case is ongoing and yet to be decided, but the website makes it unclear that the anti-discrimination policy still stands, Rachel Bergman who authored the report says in a blog post.
She points out that this is a big deal because the site no longer explicitly states that sex stereotyping and gender identity discrimination are still prohibited.
Jocelyn Samuels, who served as the director of OCR under the Obama Administration, told the WIP that these changes obscure patient rights, calling it a “damaging impact.”
“The existence of this language … was intended to inform those subject to discrimination that they continue to have rights regardless of impressions they may have gotten about the [court case] based on press releases.”
The removal of the language doesn’t change the rights patients have, but it doesn’t appear that way on the website, she says.
Samuels and other officials have said this could mean a rollback on these policies is coming soon from the Trump Administration.
This isn’t the first time resources for women and LGBTQ people have been removed from one of the HHS websites, either. In March 2018, HHS removed health resources for lesbian and bisexual women from its WomensHealth.gov website. At the time, HHS said the pages and links were taken down as part of a normal update, but the Sunlight Foundation said the pages didn’t appear to be updated when they went live again.
And in April, the HHS deleted the breast cancer website and related resources. After pressure from patient advocacy groups, the agency posted a new page.