January 7, 2010 | by Chris Johnson
Health care reform expected to include LGBT provisions

WASHINGTON — A recently reported decision by congressional leaders to forgo a formal conference committee for health care reform legislation shouldn’t impact the chances of LGBT-specific and HIV/AIDS language making it into the final bill, according to advocates of the provisions.

House and Senate leaders are hammering out the differences in health care legislation that each chamber passed last month aimed at providing coverage to 36 million uninsured Americans. Lawmakers are seeking to produce a single bill and send it to President Obama’s desk for him to sign before his State of the Union address, which the Associated Press reported could take place in early February.

Media sources reported this week that congressional leaders have opted out of having a formal conference committee for health care legislation. Instead, House and Senate leaders will hold negotiations based on the Senate bill.

The Associated Press reported this strategy would allow Democratic leaders to exclude Republicans from the negotiations and prevent them from delaying the legislation or forcing politically troubling votes in either the House or the Senate.

Although negotiations will be based on the Senate legislation — which lacks most of the LGBT and HIV/AIDS provisions — those supporting the provisions said the lack of a conference committee shouldn’t be problematic.

Ed Shelleby, spokesperson for Rep. Jim McDermott (D-Wash.), who’s sponsoring a standalone bill similar to the House bill’s tax penalty elimination provision for domestic partners, said whatever form the negotiations take “will not likely have too much an [effect] on the likelihood of the domestic partnership provision ending up in the final bill.”

“We still expect significant portions of the House version that aren’t in the Senate version to end up in the final package and Congressman McDermott is working to make this very important domestic partnership provision one of them,” Shelleby said.

Others also said the lack of a conference committee doesn’t mean the LGBT provisions are lost. A senior Democratic aide, who spoke to DC Agenda on the condition of anonymity, said, “with respect to the LGBT provisions, I don’t think there’s anything that can be said here yet.”

The House legislation contains several provisions the Senate bill lacks that would directly address LGBT and HIV/AIDS issues. These provisions would:

  • enable the Department of Health & Human Services to collect health data on disparate populations, including the LGBT community, and to open public health programs and grants focused on health disparities to cover the LGBT population;
  • bar health insurers from discriminating against people because of “personal characteristics,” including sexual orientation and gender identity;
  • eliminate taxes on employer provided health coverage for employees who receive coverage for a same-sex partner under an employer’s plan;
  • and permit state Medicaid programs to cover low-income people with HIV before they develop AIDS.

The House and Senate bills share a provision aimed at helping people with HIV/AIDS. Both bills have language allowing the cost of drugs that people with AIDS receive from AIDS Drug Assistance Programs to count toward out-of-pocket costs to qualify them for Medicare Part D catastrophic benefits.

Trevor Thomas, a Human Rights Campaign spokesperson, said his organization would continue to advocate for the LGBT provisions during negotiations in whatever shape they take.

“Negotiations between House and Senate leadership to complete health care reform will undoubtedly be complex and difficult on a range of issues,” he said. “We will continue to strongly push the congressional leadership to ensure that critical protections for LGBT people included in the House-passed bill are part of the final measure.”

Chris Johnson is Chief Political & White House Reporter for the Washington Blade. Johnson attends the daily White House press briefings and is a member of the White House Correspondents' Association. Follow Chris

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