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Gay troops challenge DOMA in federal lawsuit

Service members seeks partner benefits from U.S. military

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Gay troops and veterans joined the fight against the Defense of Marriage Act in court on Thursday by filing new litigation challenging the law on the basis that it precludes service members with same-sex partners from receiving crucial benefits.

Servicemembers Legal Defense Network filed the lawsuit, called McLaughlin v. Panetta, behalf of eight plaintiff couples in the District Court of Massachusetts. In addition to challenging DOMA, the litigation also challenges Title 10, Title 32 and Title 38 of U.S. Code, which prevents the military from providing benefits to the partners of gay troops.

Aubrey Sarvis, SLDN’s executive director, said during a news conference at the National Press Club that troops involved in the lawsuit are “seeking equal recognition, benefits and family support for their same-sex spouses that the services and the Department of Veterans Affairs provides to their straight married peers.”

“The case we are bringing is about one thing, plain and simple,” Sarvis said. “It’s about justice for gay and lesbian service members and their families in our armed forces rendering the same military service, making the same sacrifices and taking the same risks to keep our nation secure at home and abroad.”

Federal law prohibits the U.S. government from providing numerous benefits to gay troops. According to SLDN, among them are health insurance benefits, surviving spouse benefits and the issuance of military identification cards.

The lead plaintiff is Army Maj. Shannon McLaughlin, a judge advocate general who serves in the Massachusetts National Guard as chief of legal assistance and is a judge advocate general. She has served for 13 years and is married to her partner of more than three years, Casey McLaughlin. The two are raising ten-month old twins: Grace and Grant McLaughlin.

“For us, this inequity means that Casey is not eligible for health insurance and is unable to come onto post to make use of facilities services and family support that otherwise would be available if we were of the opposite sex,” Shannon McLaughlin said. “It boils down to this: we’ve been serving our country too long, working too hard and sacrificing too much to see our families denied the same recognition, support and benefits as our straight, married counterparts.”

Another plaintiff is Capt. Stephen Hill, an Army reservist of 18 years who gained notoriety after FOX News played his video question on “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” during a Republican presidential debate last month. Hill was booed by the audience, which sparked controversy over why none of the candidates condemned the booing while on stage.

Joshua Snyder, Hill’s spouse, said during the news conference FOX News didn’t play all of Hill’s question and the service member went on to ask about whether the GOP candidates would institute partner benefits for gay troops.

“Those questions went unanswered that night, and they will not be answered by the political process for quite some time,” Snyder said. “So, today, Steve and I have elected to take another route, the judicial route. We believe strongly that DOMA and laws like it ignore our families and treat us less than our [straight] married counterparts. They are an injustice and that’s why we’re here today.”

High-ranking members of the Obama administration are named in the lawsuit: U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder, Defense Secretary Leon Panetta and Secretary of Veterans Affairs Eric Shinseki.

Shin Inouye, a White House spokesperson, deferred comment on the specifics of the litigation to the Justice Department as he reiterated President Obama’s support for legislation to address the issue.

“I would note that the President has long called for a legislative repeal of the so-called Defense of Marriage Act,'” Inouye said. “He is proud to support the Respect for Marriage Act, which would take DOMA off the books once and for all. This legislation would uphold the principle that the federal government should not deny gay and lesbian couples the same rights and legal protections as straight couples.”

The Obama administration has stopped defending DOMA in court, so it’s likely the Justice Department will side with the plaintiffs in this case. Spokespersons for the departments involved in the litigation said the lawsuit remains under review.

Eileen Lainez, a Pentagon spokesperson said, “We will carefully evaluate the complaint and we will consult [the Justice Department.] In the meantime, we will continue to follow the law.”

Tracy Schmaler, a Justice Department spokesperson, said her department is “reviewing the complaint.”

Randy Noller, a VA spokesperson, said, “Once an appeal is filed, VA lawyers will analyze the legal arguments made by the appellant and respond appropriately in its briefs.”

Serving as SLDN’s pro-bono counsel in the case are Abbe Lowell and Christopher Man, attorneys at Chadbourne & Parke.

During the news conference, Man said previous rulings against DOMA in Massachusetts in will help in moving the litigation forward. A district court in the state ruled against the anti-gay law in two separate cases last year.

“A lot of the work that was necessary for us to move forward has already been done in that court,” Man said. “That court has already briefed the issues; they’re familiar with it. So, it made sense to go ahead and file it rather than reinvent the wheel before another court.”

Asked about the timeline for the lawsuit, Man said he plans to file a motion for summary judgment soon and hopes the district court will rule within “a few months.”

“The court has already ruled on the constitutionality of DOMA, it wouldn’t be very hard for it to apply that same analysis to our case,” Man said. “And because the president and the attorney general have indicated they will no longer be defending DOMA, it shouldn’t be must of a contest.”

The litigation is one among several lawsuits challenging DOMA that are making their way through the judicial system. In two cases, Gill v. U.S. Office of Personnel Management and Commonwealth of Massachusetts v. U.S. Department of Health & Human Services, plaintiffs were set to file a reply with the U.S. First Circuit of Appeals on the same day that the SLDN litigation was initiated. Another case, Pedersen v. OPM, has been filed in the U.S. District Court in Connecticut.

Gay & Lesbian Advocates & Defenders filed the Gill and Pedersen cases. Mary Bonauto, GLAD’s lead attorney for cases, responded to the lawsuit by saying her organization empathizes with the troops in the McLaughlin case.

“We have enormous respect and empathy for the service men and women being hurtby DOMA, and for all families hurt by DOMA,” Bonauto said. “Those couples are more great examples of how DOMA’s double standards make no sense. DOMA violates the Constitution that our menand women in the military are risking their lives to uphold.”

Bonauto added, “We believe the best way to end the harm is through getting a positive appellate ruling as soon as possible, and we are working hard to strike the blow that will end DOMA in our Gill case.”

At the news conference, Sarvis said he’s held conversation with other groups involved in DOMA litigation, but added they’ve been “very brief.”

“I wish we had more time to consult with them, but we were on a track, and, frankly, I was not aware that today was an important day for them with the respect to their briefing before the Court of Appeals,” Sarvis said. “But at the end of the day, we share the same objective here. I think we want to be in the best venue for all the plaintiffs, whether it’s the plaintiffs in Massachusetts in the Gill case or here in the McLaughlin case.”

The SLDN lawsuit also isn’t the only pending case that involved gay service members seeking partner benefits. Carmen Cordova, a Navy veteran who married her spouse in Connecticut last year, filed her own lawsuit earlier this month in the Court of Veterans Claims. Cordova reportedly applied for an increase in her monthly disability compensation after she was newly married, but was denied on the basis of federal law.

SLDN has filed the lawsuit as it and other organizations are pushing the Pentagon to make changes administratively to offer other benefits to gay troops. Among the benefits in this category are making same-sex married couples eligible for joint duty assignments, family center programs and military family housing.

As this effort is underway, Sarvis said litigation is necessary because federal law prohibits “big ticket” benefits from going to gay troops.

“That’s why we’ve brought this constitutional legal challenge to DOMA and to those three titles [of federal law],” Sarvis said. “The big ticket items are the ones that we are outlining in the suit.”

The Pentagon’s Lainez said the issue of providing certain benefits to service members with same-sex partners remains under review.

“In connection with ‘Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell’ repeal, the Defense Department is engaged in a careful and deliberate review of the possibility of extending eligibility for benefits, when legally permitted, to other individuals including same-sex partners,” Lainez said.

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2 Comments

2 Comments

  1. Michael Bedwell

    October 27, 2011 at 1:19 pm

    While applauding this lawsuit, we fail to understand while SLDN yet again paints over reality with a disingenuous broad brush. Their press release unequivocally states that federal law prevents gay military couples from having access to military “housing,” when, in fact, as the Pentagon itself acknowledged in their November 2010 “study” report, only the financial stipend for NON-military housing [typically referred to as “off-base”], called the “Basic Allowance for Housing” at the “with dependent rate” is affected because the definitions of “dependent” trigger DOMA. However, NOTHING prevents gay couples from being allowed to live in “military family housing” [as they do in Great Britain and Australia] but arbitrary Pentagon policy that could be changed NOW with a stroke of the proverbial pen. Definitions of eligibility for this housing do NOT trigger DOMA but the Pentagon has admitted they CHOSE to deny access for a variety of “reasons” that fail to disguise the actual one—homophobia on their part on that of straight couples living in military housing that might object. From the Pentagon report, emphasis theirs:

    “For benefits such as these, the Department of Defense COULD legally direct the Services to
    revise their regulations to extend coverage to Service members’ same-sex partners. This could
    be accomplished in two ways: leave to the Service member the freedom to designate his or
    her ‘dependents’, ‘family members’, or similar term; or, revise these definitions to specifically
    mention a committed, same-sex relationship, and require some type of proof of that committed
    relationship. The latter is similar to the approach now being taken in Federal agencies for civilian
    employees.”

    Why is SLDN not investing as much energy in pressuring the Commander-in-Chief to order the immediate change of this arbitrary policy as they are this lawsuit which will take YEARS in court?

    • Ned Flaherty

      October 30, 2011 at 1:44 am

      Military personnel with same-sex spouses lose up to 40% of their rightful pay/benefits ($250,000 over a career) just becuase of DOMA. Those 275 active/reserve duty benefits, plus 93 veteran benefits, have a huge impact.

      SLDN is pursuing a full, complete solution by overturning, for once and for all, the DOM Act.

      Yes, DoD might be able to make some interim, compromise effort in the meantime, but — as we’ve seen many times before — there’s a tiny but vocal minority of Republican Congress members who scream bloody murder whenever LGBT people start getting fair tretment. DoD was right in allowing same-sex weddings in on-base chapels, but that didn’t stop Congressional homophobes from causing a 6-month tabloid-based battle about federal law, taxpayer dollars, religious liberty, gay germs in Christian churches, what-will-the-kids-think, etcetera.

      If DoD tried what you suggest, there would be a long string of separate, ridiculous mini-controversies over that would drag on as many years as the lawsuit. It’s simpler, clearer, and more permanent to resolve this the way SLDN is doing it, for once and for all.

      If you have any doubt about the difficulties Republicans would raise at every step of the way, look at this side-by-side comparison of the 12 presidential candidates, and their plans for equal military pay, DOMA repeal, DADT reinstatement, and related issues affecting 31 million LGBT Americans: http://www.marriageequality.org/Election2012.

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Utah

VIDEO: Utah deal promoted as national model for LGBTQ rights, religious liberty

Data finds state has 2nd highest support for LGBTQ rights

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(Screen capture via YouTube)

A new video from the premier LGBTQ group in Utah, challenging the idea LGBTQ rights must be at odds with religious liberty, promotes an agreement reached in the state as a potential model to achieve a long sought-after update to civil rights law at the federal level.

The video, published Friday by Equality Utah, focuses on a 2015 agreement in Utah between the supporters of LGBTQ rights and the Mormon Church to enact a compromise acceptable to both sides. The agreement by those two sides led to an LGBTQ civil rights law in the state, which has Republican control of the state legislature and the governor’s mansion.

Troy Williams, executive director of Equality Utah, says in the video dialogue is key to achieving meaningful success, whether its among the people of Utah, a state legislature or lawmakers in Congress.

“When you are working with LGBT rights in a state like Utah, and you want to advance legal equality, you can’t do it without working with Republicans, with conservative, with people of faith,” Williams says.

Williams, speaking with the Washington Blade over a Zoom call, said the main audience for the video is people on “the center right and the center left” willing to listen to other side when it comes to LGBTQ rights and religious liberty.

“People that have the courage to reach out to each other, and sit down across from each other and say, ‘Hey look, let’s hammer this out,” Williams said. “That’s who my audience is.”

Not only did Utah enact non-discrimination protections for LGBTQ people, but the state under a Republican governor administratively banned widely discredited conversion therapy for youth. When lawmakers proposed legislation that would ban transgender youth from competing in school sports, the proposal was scuttled when Gov. Spencer Cox (whom Williams called a “super Mormon”) said he’d veto it after it came to his desk.

Marina Gomberg, a former board for Equality Utah, is another voice in the video seeking dispel the narrative religious liberty and LGBTQ rights are in conflict.

“in order to protect LGBTQ people, we don have to deny religious liberty, and in order to provide protections for religious liberties, we don’t have to deny LGBTQ people,” Gomberg says. “The idea that we do is a fallacy that Utah has dismantled.”

In July, new polling demonstrated the surprisingly the Utah, despite being a conservative state, has the second highest percentage of state population in support for non-discrimination protections for LGBTQ people. The data Public Religion Research Institute from 77 percent of Utah residents support LGBTQ people, which is just behind New Hampshire at 81 percent.

Tyler Deaton, senior adviser for the pro-LGBTQ American Unity Fund, said the Utah agreement demonstrates the possibility of reaching an agreement at the federal level once “second order” issues are put into perspective.

“The first order question has to be how are we winning the culture,” Deaton said. “Do people even want to pass the bill? And if they do, you then figure out the details.”

The American Unity Fund has helped promote as a path forward for LGBTQ non-discrimination at the federal level the Fairness for For All Act, legislation seeking to reach a middle ground on LGBTQ rights and religious freedom. Polling earlier this year found 57 percent of the American public back a bipartisan solution in Congress to advance LGBTQ civil rights.

Supporters of the Equality Act, the more established vehicle for LGBTQ rights before Congress, say the Fairness for For All Act would give too many carve-out for LGBTQ rights in the name of religious freedom. The Equality Act, however, is all but dead in Congress and has shown no movement in the U.S. Senate.

Skeptics of the Utah law would point out the law doesn’t address public accommodations, one of the more challenging aspects in the fight for LGBTQ rights and one or remaining gaps in civil rights protections for LGBTQ people in the aftermath of the U.S. Supreme Court’s decision last year in Bostock v. Clayton County. As a result, it’s perfectly legal in Utah for a business owner to discriminate against LGBTQ coming as patrons.

Williams, however, shrugged off the idea the lack of public accommodations protections in Utah make the agreement in the state makes it any less of a model, making the case the spirit behind the deal is what matters.

“I think copying and pasting Utah’s law doesn’t work for lots of reasons,” Wililams said. “What’s most important is a model of collaboration because when you are sitting around the table with each other — Democrats and Republicans, LGBTQ people and people of faith — that’s when the transformation happens. That is when the mutual respect is really forged.”

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Venezuelan man with AIDS dies in ICE custody

Pablo Sánchez Gotopo passed away at Miss. hospital on Oct. 1

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Pablo Sanchez Gotopo, who was living with HIV/AIDS, died in U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement custody in Mississippi on Oct. 1, 2021. (Courtesy photo)

A Venezuelan man with AIDS died in U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement custody on Oct. 1.

An ICE press release notes Pablo Sánchez Gotopo, 40, died at Merit Health River Oaks in Flowood, Miss., which is a suburb of Jackson, the state capital. The press release notes the “preliminary cause of death was from complications with acute respiratory failure, Acquired Immune Deficiency Syndrome (AIDS), pneumonia, acute kidney failure, anemia and COVID-19.”

ICE said U.S. Border Patrol took Sánchez into custody near Del Rio, Texas, on May 17. He arrived at the Adams County Detention Center in Natchez, Miss., four days later.

“Upon arrival to an ICE facility, all detainees are medically screened and administered a COVID-19 test by ICE Health Service Corps (IHSC) personnel,” said ICE in its press release. “Sánchez’s test results came back negative.”

The press release notes Sánchez on July 28 received another COVID-19 test after he “began showing symptoms of COVID-19.” ICE said he tested negative, but Adams County Detention Center personnel transferred him to a Natchez hospital “for additional advanced medical care.”

ICE Enforcement and Removal Operations staff in its New Orleans Field Office, according to the press release, “coordinated with hospital staff to arrange family visitation” after Sánchez’s “health condition deteriorated.” Sánchez was transferred to Merit Health River Oaks on Sept. 25.

“ICE is firmly committed to the health and welfare of all those in its custody and is undertaking a comprehensive agency-wide review of this incident, as it does in all such cases,” says the press release.

Venezuela’s political and economic crises have prompted more than 10,000 people with HIV to leave the country, according to the New York-based Aid for AIDS International.

Activists and health care service providers in Venezuela with whom the Washington Blade has spoken in recent years have said people with HIV/AIDS in the country have died because of a lack of antiretroviral drugs. Andrés Cardona, director of Fundación Ancla, a group in the Colombian city of Medellín that works with migrants and other vulnerable groups, told the Blade last month that many Venezuelans with HIV would have died if they hadn’t come to Colombia.

The Blade has not been able to verify a Venezuelan activist’s claim that Sánchez was gay. It is also not known why Sánchez decided to leave Venezuela and travel to the U.S.

ICE detainee with HIV described Miss. detention center as ‘not safe’

Activists and members of Congress continue to demand ICE release people with HIV/AIDS in their custody amid reports they don’t have adequate access to medications and other necessary medical treatment.

Two trans women with HIV—Victoria Arellano from Mexico and Roxsana Hernández from Honduras—died in ICE custody in 2007 and 2018 respectively. Johana “Joa” Medina Leon, a trans woman with HIV who fled El Salvador, died in 2019, three days after ICE released her from a privately-run detention center.

The Blade in July 2020 interviewed a person with HIV who was in ICE custody at the Adams County Detention Center. The detainee said there was no social distancing at the privately-run facility and personnel were not doing enough to prevent COVID-19 from spreading.

“It’s not safe,” they told the Blade.

The entrance to the Adams County Detention Center in Natchez, Miss. (Washington Blade photo by Michael K. Lavers)

Elisabeth Grant-Gibson, a Natchez resident who supports ICE detainees and their families, on Wednesday told the Blade that she was able to visit the Adams County Detention Center and other ICE facilities in the Miss Lou Region of Mississippi and Louisiana from November 2019 until the suspension of in-person visitation in March 2020 because of the pandemic.

“Medical neglect and refusal of medical care has always been an issue in the detention center at Adams County,” said Grant-Gibson. “After the facilities were closed to public visitation, those problems increased.”

Grant-Gibson told the Blade she “worked with a number of families and received phone calls from a number of detainees, and I was told again and again that detainees were being refused the opportunity to visit the infirmary.”

“When they did visit the infirmary, they were given virtually no treatment for the issues they were presenting with,” said Grant-Gibson.

ICE in its press release that announced Sánchez’s death said fatalities among its detainees, “statistically, are exceedingly rare and occur at a fraction of the national average for the U.S. detained population.” ICE also noted it spends more than $315 million a year “on the spectrum of healthcare services provided to detainees.”

“ICE’s Health Service Corps (IHSC) ensures the provision of necessary medical care services as required by ICE Performance-Based National Detention Standards and based on the medical needs of the detainee,” notes the ICE press release. “Comprehensive medical care is provided from the moment detainees arrive and throughout the entirety of their stay. All ICE detainees receive medical, dental, and mental health intake screening within 12 hours of arriving at each detention facility, a full health assessment within 14 days of entering ICE custody or arrival at a facility, and access to daily sick call and 24-hour emergency care.”

An ICE spokesperson on Wednesday pointed the Blade to its Performance-Based Detention Standards from 2011, which includes policies for the treatment of detainees with HIV/AIDS.

A detainee “may request HIV testing at any time during detention” and ICE detention centers “shall develop a written plan to ensure the highest degree of confidentiality regarding HIV status and medical condition.” The policy also states that “staff training must emphasize the need for confidentiality, and procedures must be in place to limit access to health records to only authorized individuals and only when necessary.”

“The accurate diagnosis and medical management of HIV infection among detainees shall be promoted,” reads the policy. “An HIV diagnosis may be made only by a licensed health care provider, based on a medical history, current clinical evaluation of signs and symptoms and laboratory studies.”

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Rachel Levine on becoming four-star admiral: ‘It comes from my desire to serve’

Trans official sworn-in to U.S. Public Health Service

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For Rachel Levine, the appointment to her new role as a four-star admiral complementing her existing duties as assistant secretary for health is another way for the first openly transgender Senate-confirmed presidential appointee to serve.

“I think that this just really comes from my desire to serve in all capacities,” Levine said in an interview Tuesday with the Washington Blade. “To serve the first day in my field of academic medicine and pediatrics, but then in Pennsylvania and now in the federal government, and it furthers my ability to do that.”

Levine, 63, also recognized the importance of the appointment as a transgender person within the U.S. Public Health Service, for which she was ceremonially sworn in on Tuesday

“I think for the LGBTQ+ community, it is a further sign of progress and our president’s commitment to equity, to inclusion and diversity,” Levine said. “So I think that it is a very important milestone, and I’m pleased to serve.”

As part of her duties, Levine will lead an estimated 6,000 public health service officers serving vulnerable populations, including deployments inside and outside the country for communities beleaguered with the coronavirus, according to the Department of Health & Human Services. The role involves working closely with U.S. Surgeon General Vivek Murphy, whom Levine called her “friend and colleague.”

The U.S. Public Health Service, Levine said, has deployed “many, many times,” including its greatest number ever of deployments to vulnerable populations during the coronavirus pandemic. Among the places the service has deployed, Levine said, was in her home state of Pennsylvania, where she recently served as secretary of health.

Not only is Levine the first openly transgender person to serve in the uniformed health service as a four-star general, but she’s also the first woman to serve in that capacity.

“We have 6,000 dedicated committed public servants really all focused on our nation’s health, and they serve in details to the CDC and the FDA and the NIH, but also clinically with the Indian Health Service, and the federal prison system,” Levine said. “They’re also detailed and deployed throughout the country, and they deployed like never before for COVID-19 as well as the border, as well as dealing with floods and hurricanes and tornadoes.”

Although the Public Health Service is primarily focused on addressing public health disasters within the United States, Levine said it has a record of deployments overseas, including years ago when it was deployed to Africa under the threat of Ebola.

Secretary of Health & Human Services Xavier Becerra had high praise for Levine in a statement upon news of taking on a leadership position in the service.

“This is a proud moment for us at HHS,” Becerra said. “Adm. Levine — a highly accomplished pediatrician who helps drive our agency’s agenda to boost health access and equity and to strengthen behavioral health — is a cherished and critical partner in our work to build a healthier America.”

Levine, however, was careful to draw a distinction between her appointment within the Public Health Service and being a service member within the U.S. armed forces.

“It is not a military branch, it’s not the armed forces: It’s a uniformed force, so it’s different,” Levine said. “For example, the Army, the Navy, our military, there are two other uniformed branches, and that is ours, the United States Public Health Service Commissioned Corps and NOAA.”

The new role, Levine said, would complement her duties as assistant secretary for health. Although not only secretaries of health have been commissioned to take the uniform, Levine said she wanted to undertake that as part of her role in the Biden administration.

The two appointments were not simultaneous, Levine said, because of a general process she undertook, which was completed just this week.

It hasn’t been an easy road for Levine. During her Senate confirmation process, when she was hounded by anti-transgender attacks in conservative media and rude, invasive questioning by Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.) on her gender identity.

Levine, however, said she hasn’t encountered any hostility regarding her new role (as of now) and shrugged off any potential attacks in the future and said the move is about her career “to serve and to help people.”

“I’ve continued that for our nation as the assistant secretary for health and this is just a further demonstration of my commitment to service,” Levine said. “I don’t know what others will say, but that’s the genesis of my wanting to serve in the United States Public Health Service Commissioned Corps, and to place on the uniform.”

Levine’s new appointment comes shortly after a group of Democratic senators led by Sen. Chris Murphy (D-Conn.) sent her a letter dated Sept. 30 calling on her and Miriam Delphin-Rittmon, assistant secretary for mental health and substance use, to issue new guidance for hospital or residential care on mental health needs of transgender people.

Asked about the letter, Levine said mental health issues are under the authority of Delphin-Rittmon and the two “will work together and we will respond.”

Specifically, the senators in the letter call on the Behavioral Health Coordinating Council, or BHCC, and experts in the field of adolescent trans care to offer guidance on best practices for inpatient mental health care among these youth.

Asked what the response will look like, Levine said, “We’re going to work on that.”

“We will be looking at what they’re asking for and the requirements, and we’ll talk with them and the stakeholders and we’ll look to issue appropriate guidance,” Levine said.

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