June 21, 2011 | by Chris Johnson
Sebelius promises to collect LGBT data in health surveys

Secretary of Health & Human Services Kathleen Sebelius (Blade file photo by Michael Key)

Secretary of Health & Human Services Kathleen Sebelius committed on Tuesday to start the collection of LGBT data as part of federal health surveys, although she said the questions that would be used to gather the information must be market-tested before they’re made part of any questionnaire.

During a news conference at the White House, Sebelius said in response to a question from the Washington Blade that the Department of Health & Human Services “fully intend[s] to collect LGBT data” through federal surveys.

“So it is definitely a commitment,” Sebelius said. “We will be adding data questions to the national health surveys. And right now we are looking at developing a slew of questions, market-testing them, coming back and making sure we have the right way to solicit the information that we need.”

Sebelius said including LGBT questions on federal health surveys has been difficult because the federal government hasn’t engaged in such data collection before and hasn’t settled on the right way to ask such questions. The secretary asserted the Department of Health & Human Services is market-testing questions to make sure they’re worded in the right way to collect the necessary information.

“The problem is that it’s never been collected, and what our folks came back to us with is we have to figure out — and we’re working with providers and advocates right now to actually market-test the questions — how to ask questions in a way that they elicit accurate responses, because collecting data that doesn’t give an accurate picture is not very helpful in the first place,” Sebelius said. “And there has been so little attempt, either directly to consumers or to parents or to anybody else, to ask questions about LGBT health issues that we don’t even know how to ask them.”

Although Sebelius expressed a commitment to include LGBT data collection as part of federal health surveys, she didn’t offer a timeline for when this market testing would be complete or when the questions would be included on the surveys.

To facilitate a better picture of the health of LGBT Americans, advocates have been seeking the inclusion of questions related to sexual orientation and gender identity on major federal surveys, such as the National Health Interview Survey and the Behavioral Risk Factor Surveillance System.

To gather data on sexual orientation, a survey could ask whether someone identifies as lesbian, gay or bisexual. Another survey more focused on sexual health, such as an HIV survey, could ask about sexual behavior and whether the responder has had sex with someone of the same gender.

For gender identity, a survey could ask whether respondents identify as transgender; if someone has transitioned from one gender to another over the course of their lives; or ask about non-conformity, regardless of how the respondent identifies their gender.

Advocates are hoping that data obtained from asking these questions may help ascertain whether certain health problems affect LGBT people more frequently than others, such as mental health problems or alcohol and drug abuse.

Joe Solmonese, president of the Human Rights Campaign, praised Sebelius in a statement for expressing her commitment to including the questions on the surveys and said the change is needed to address LGBT health disparities.

“It has been repeatedly demonstrated — including in a major LGBT health report issued just months ago by the Institute of Medicine —that LGBT people experience significant health disparities and that we cannot fully understand those disparities and how to address them until major health studies ask about our community,” Solmonese said.

Solmonese was referring to the report from the non-governmental United States National Academy of Sciences’ Institute of Medicine Report, published March 31, which found that researchers have insufficient data on LGBT people in health studies, prompting a tendency to treat LGBT people as a single homogeneous group.

Darlene Nipper, deputy executive director of the National Gay & Lesbian Task Force, also commended Sebelius for making the commitment for LGBT data inclusion as a means to address health problems affecting LGBT people.

“There is an urgent need to address health disparities because LGBT lives literally hang in the balance,” Nipper said. “We’re pleased that HHS is moving forward on data collection for the LGBT community in federal health surveys. While not typically headline grabbers, LGBT data collection in federal surveys is critical to the ultimate well-being of our community.”

A number of LGBT advocates also called for greater transparency in the way that the Department of Health & Human Services devises the potential questions to obtain health data on the LGBT population.

Gary Gates, distinguished scholar at the Williams Institute at the University of California in Los Angeles, called the commitment from Sebelius “fantastic,” but said questions on sexual orientation and gender identity “need not start from scratch.”

“We know a great deal already about how to measure sexual orientation and some recent studies have also highlighted promising approaches to measuring gender identity,” Gates said. “HHS now has a real opportunity to develop an open and transparent process as they assess how to best utilize this body of research to inform how they achieve LGBT inclusion in their data collection. That process must be transparent and involve experts from both inside and outside of the government as well as experts from the LGBT community.”

Nipper made similar remarks on the need for openness in the way the LGBT-related questions for the health surveys are developed.

“We encourage the secretary to take this directive and turn it into action in a transparent process that includes experts from both inside and outside of the federal government to implement it effectively,” Nipper said. “The sooner this happens, the sooner initiatives like Healthy People and the National Prevention Strategy will be able to adequately address the many health needs of our community.”

The National Prevention Strategy, a comprehensive plan aimed at increasing the number of Americans who are healthy at every stage of their lives, was published last week by the Department of Health & Human Services’ National Prevention Council. The strategy recognizes that good health comes not just from quality medical care, but also from clean air and water, safe work sites and healthy foods.

A transcript of the exchange between the Blade and Sebelius follows:

Washington Blade: Madam Secretary, I have a question for you on a different topic. As I’m sure you know, the absence of nationwide data about the LGBT community’s health needs and disparities has been a problem. Organizations want government assistance to address problems. The government insists on data to back up these requests, but the government won’t collect data, so the LGBT community remains stymied.

It’s public knowledge that groups have been advocating with HHS to address the data collection issue — specific things like including LGBT questions on the National Health Interview Survey and the Behavioral Risk Factor Surveillance System.

You and the president have been advocates for evidence-based decision-making. What’s the holdup here?

Kathleen Sebelius: Well, actually, it’s a great question, and we fully intend to collect LGBT data. The problem is that it’s never been collected, and what our folks came back to us with is we have to figure out — and we’re working with providers and advocates right now to actually market-test the questions — how to ask questions in a way that they elicit accurate responses, because collecting data that doesn’t give an accurate picture is not very helpful in the first place. And there has been so little attempt, either directly to consumers or to parents or to anybody else, to ask questions about LGBT health issues that we don’t even know how to ask them.

So it is definitely a commitment. We will be adding data questions to the National Health Surveys. And right now we are looking at developing a slew of questions, market-testing them, coming back and making sure we have the right way to solicit the information that we need.

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

2 Comments
  • Unfortunately, as long as the only groups being asked the questions are HRC, TLDEF, and others of such size, data needed won’t be complete. A degree behind the name, or being in upper management ignores the positive inputs that the smaller groups and organizations can bring to the table. It also presupposes ignoring the other superminorities, such as the Intersex, the specific Transsexual, or the non-binary Questioning. And would not learn the best way to inquire for a survey, the Q & A needed information. Ms. Sebelius, try having your staff talk to the smaller groups and organizations, the individuals, who ultimately should be a part of and benefit from these surveys.

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