August 2, 2013 | by Chris Johnson
Baldwin leads call for HHS to reevaluate gay blood ban
Tammy Baldwin, Wisconsin, United States Senate, Democratic Party, gay news, Washington Blade

Sen. Tammy Baldwin (D-Wis.) is leading 85 lawmakers in a call for HHS to reevaluate its gay blood ban. (Washington Blade photo by Michael Key)

Lesbian Sen. Tammy Baldwin (D-Wis.) is leading a new effort to call on the Department of Health & Human Services for an update on the process with which reviewing its regulatory ban prohibiting gay and bisexual men from donating blood.

In a public letter dated Aug. 2, Baldwin as part of 86 members of the House and Senate asks Secretary of Health & Human Services Kathleen Sebelius for an update on the previously announced reevaluation of the policy, saying they’re “deeply concerned about the timeline of such research.”

“Our current policies turn away healthy, willing donors, even when we face serious blood shortages,” the letter states. “Further, the existing lifetime ban continues to perpetuate inaccurate stereotypes against gay and bisexual men, and fosters an atmosphere that promotes discrimination and discourages individuals from HIV testing and treatment services.”

Under current regulation, men who have had sex with other men since 1977 — even once — aren’t eligible to donate blood. The policy was set up administratively in 1985 at the height of the AIDS crisis, but could be overturned at any time without a change in law.

Others who have signed the bipartisan letter include Sens. Elizabeth Warren (D-Wis.) and Mike Enzi (R-Wyo.) as well as Reps. Mike Quigley (D-Ill.) and Barbara Lee (D-Calif.). Other signers are openly gay members of the U.S. House: Reps. Jared Polis (D-Colo.), David Cicilline (D-R.I.), Mark Pocan (D-Wis.), Sean Patrick Maloney (D-N.Y.) and Mark Takano (D-Calif.). Bisexual Rep. Kyrsten Sinema (D-Ariz.) isn’t yet a signer.

Baldwin supplemented the letter to the Department of Health & Human Services with a message via Twitter drawing attention to the current policy on gay blood donation.

The letter takes HHS to task for not moving quickly in the wake of announced plans to reevaluate existing policy. As the Washington Blade reported in 2010, the Advisory Committee on Blood Safety & Availability voted 9-6 against lifting the ban, but recommended additional research to support a change that would allow low-risk gay and bisexual men to donate.

According to the letter, HHS informed the committee last month that three studies are underway as well as a task force to help inform policy changes. The Quarantine Release Error Task Force is due to release a white paper this month, while the REDS-II, and Donor History Questionnaire studies are both scheduled to report results in October. The REDS-III study will be completed in August 2014.

The letter also notes, as the Washington Blade reported last year, HHS announced in March 2012 it’s seeking comments on a plan to design a pilot study to establish “alternative donor deferral criteria” that would enable gay and bisexual men to donate blood. Among the suggested changes is having them go through additional screening so they can be allowed to donate, although the notice admits such a policy may be seen as discriminatory.

According to the letter, HHS informed the Advisory Committee on Blood Safety & Availability that the RFI has received 11 responses to this proposal and a report to HHS senior leadership is scheduled for next month. According to public record, 10 responses were received from 10 different organizations, totaling 75 pages, including support documents.

The letter enumerates four things on which lawmakers seek clarity from HHS in reassessing blood donation criteria for men who have sex with men:

• The criteria used to assess the 75 pages of comments and what the assessment activities took place from June 2012 to July 2013;

• A copy of the July 2013 report to leadership on the response to the RFI on pilot study design;

• A detailed plan and a timeline for how results from the Quarantine Release Error Task Force, the Donor History Questionnaire Study; the REDS-II and REDS-III studies will be used to inform changes to the blood donation criteria; and

• Whether HHS plans to leverage data from other countries that currently allow MSM to donate to inform analysis of an alternative policy, and if not, why not.

In response to the letter, an HHS spokesperson pointed to the decision adopted by the Advisory Committee on Blood Safety & Availability in 2010 without providing an update on the research.

“The committee found the current donor deferral policies to be suboptimal in permitting some potentially high risk donations while preventing some potentially low risk donations, but voted in favor of retaining the existing policy, and identified areas requiring further research,” the HHS spokesperson said.

Shin Inouye, a White House spokesperson, deferred comment to HHS on the issue.

As noted in the letter, the American Medical Association in June adopted a resolution in opposition to the gay blood ban in favor of a policy that weighs individual risks other than sexual orientation.

AMA board member Dr. William Kobler at the time said the lifetime ban on gay blood donations “is discriminatory and not based on sound science.”

“This new policy urges a federal policy change to ensure blood donation bans or deferrals are applied to donors according to their individual level of risk and are not based on sexual orientation alone,” Kobler said.

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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