HHS sued over failing to release communications on family planning grants, religious freedom

HHS is the target of new lawsuits by a watchdog group for failing to respond to requests to release emails and online messages—one regarding Office of Civil Rights (OCR) officials and launching of its “Conscience and Religious Freedom Division,” the other over HHS communications with outside groups on changes to a federal grant program that provides birth control and other reproductive health services to low-income Americans.

Both suits were brought by Equity Forward, a group founded in January with the stated goal of “holding accountable groups and individuals that are limiting access to reproductive health care.” Since then, its been active in criticizing women’s health policies at HHS under Secretary Alex Azar, including filing a lawsuit against the agency for failing to respond to other record requests related to reported efforts to stop undocumented immigrants from obtaining abortions.

In the first case, the group said it asked for a variety of communications under the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA), including emails from OCR director Roger Severino and OCR policy staff related to the religious freedom division ahead of its launch in January. According to the suit, OCR confirmed it received those FOIA requests in January and February, but to date Equity Forward “has not received determinations or any responses” on whether OCR will hand over those records.

“All people should have access to health care free from discrimination,” said Mary Alice Carter, executive director of Equity Forward. “When someone is denied care based on their gender identity, it puts their lives at risk. Health care should be driven by science, evidence and above all, compassion. We are seeking information on how this division was formed and who is influencing these dangerous policies.”

The group said its concerned Severino—an outspoken opponent of abortion and same-sex marriage who used to argue religious liberty cases—is planning on rolling back an Obama-era rule barring discrimination against transgender patients, as well as “grant cover” to providers which won’t care for or issue referrals to women seeking birth control or other reproductive health services on the basis that it violates their religious beliefs.

OCR’s religious freedom division is dedicated to those kinds of concerns from healthcare workers who report being coerced into having any involvement in procedures they object to on moral or religious grounds. The new office reportedly received 300 complaints in its first month.

“HHS has not always been the best keeper of this liberty,” Severino said when the division was launched. “Times are changing and we are institutionalizing a change in the culture of government, beginning with HHS, to never forget that religious freedom is a primary freedom. That it is a civil right that deserves complete enforcement.”

Equity Forward strongly opposed the division when it was announced, calling it an “attack” on access to care and political appointees at HHS. Democrats in Congress also bashed it, saying it put a provider’s personal beliefs ahead of a patient’s health.

More religious-minded policies from HHS have been expected and the next change may affect the grant program known as Title X. Under the rumored changes, any healthcare provider which performs abortions or gives patients information or referrals about abortions would be excluded from Title X funding. New guidelines would also remove the words “birth control” from the program, allegedly to move its purpose towards promoting abstinence-only sex education.

HHS has already been sued for the changes by Planned Parenthood and the National Family Planning and Reproductive Association, which argued the changes would go against congressional intent in creating Title X.

“Title X has been critical to reducing the unintended pregnancy rate and teen pregnancy rate in the United States. And yet, Secretary Azar is working overtime to obliterate the program without being open with the public about who is guiding these seismic policy changes,” Carter said in a statement.