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Judge Blocks New Federal Rule on Health Care Discrimination

AARP opposes the rule, which would curtail protections for LGBTQ people in obtaining care

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En español | A federal judge has blocked the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) from enforcing key parts of a regulation that would roll back protections for gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender people in accessing health care.

The case, brought by the nonprofit civil rights group Lambda Legal, aims to counter a June HHS move to exclude LGBTQ individuals from a section of the Affordable Care Act (ACA) that bars discrimination on the basis of race, color, national origin, sex, age or disability. AARP and AARP Foundation filed an amicus brief in support of the legal challenge.

The Trump administration is seeking to reverse an Obama-era interpretation of the statute, known as Section 1557, that defined sex discrimination as including discrimination on the basis of gender identity or sexual orientation.

The preliminary injunction that Judge James Boasberg of the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia issued Wednesday prevents HHS from enforcing that change and another proposal to allow health care providers to claim a religious exemption from Section 1557 before the court hears the case.

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Allowing the new rules to take effect “would impede the public interest by threatening the health of LGBTQ individuals at large, some of whom will likely develop increasingly acute conditions on account of their delaying necessary care or refraining from transparent communication with providers out of fear of discrimination,” the judge wrote in a 101-page opinion.

The coronavirus pandemic reinforces the need “to ensure the availability and provision of care on a nondiscriminatory basis,” he said.

The case was brought on behalf of clinics serving LGBTQ communities in Washington, D.C., and Los Angeles and other LGBTQ and medical organizations.

"Health care is a human right and the Affordable Care Act sought to expand access to health care for everyone regardless of their sex, LGBTQ identity or other characteristics,” said Omar Gonzalez-Pagan, senior attorney and health care strategist at Lambda Legal. “The rule [change] is unlawful and endangers people's lives, plain and simple."

HHS did not respond to a request for comment.

In a statement, AARP and AARP Foundation called the injunction “an important first step to protect the LGBTQ community."

Since the ACA went into effect, “LGBTQ older adults have come to depend on the law to combat discrimination and gain access to quality, affordable health care,” the organizations said. “The new rule would wipe out these hard-won gains.”

Boasberg cited the Supreme Court's landmark June ruling prohibiting workplace discrimination on the basis of gender identity or sexual orientation. The court said in that decision that employment discrimination on the basis of gender identity was discrimination on the basis of sex. HHS finalized its proposed changes to Section 1557 four days after that ruling was announced.

The new rules were to take effect Aug. 18, but one day earlier a federal judge in New York issued a similar injunction, also citing the Supreme Court decision. The New York ruling came in a separate suit against HHS that deals only with the language on sex discrimination but does not address the religious exemption.