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February 24. 2012

Top officials initiate White House LGBT health forum

Philadelphia--Luminaries in social service organizations and government on the local and federal level descended upon Philadelphia on February 16 for the inaugural White House LGBT Conference on Health at Thomas Jefferson University’s Dorrance H. Hamilton Building.

The morning plenary session, which included a panel discussion on LGBT elders, saw a parade of high-ranking officials, from Associate Director of the White House Office of Public Engagement Gautam Raghavan to Office of Personnel Management director John Berry, the highest out LGBT official in the administration.

Dr. Robert Barchi, the president of Thomas Jefferson University, noted that the school and the Mazzoni Center, a local LGBT health and wellness organization, partnered on a practice site integrating medical students and staff from the university. Barchi said the program will “create the next generation of informed providers.”

Berry was introduced as the highest-ranking out gay member of any administration, and he praised President Barack Obama while also noting the triumphs and tragedies of the past.

“I knew form a very young age that I was gay. My first crush was on Aquaman,” he said, noting to loud applause that he just loved those green tights.

Berry brought up the case of gay activist Frank Kameny, who was fired from a federal job for being gay in 1957--by one of Berry’s predecessors. Kameny then sued to government

“When I was a young man, I did not know Frank Kameny, but every day I thank God for Frank Kameny because he made it possible for me to have this job,” he said.

Berry also noted, “It is not hyperbole to say that this president has done more for our community the last three years than all the others since the founding of this nation together,” citing, among other things, the repeal of “don’t ask, don’t tell” and the refusal to defend the Defense of Marriage Act in court.

The eldercare panel included Assistant Secretary for Health Howard Koh, Assistant Secretary for Aging Kathy Greenlee and Deputy General Counsel Ken Choe.

Koh noted the administration’s efforts to create “culturally and linguistically appropriate standards,” and urged attendees to check into a four-part online seminar on LGBT health at www.healthypeople.gov.

Philadelphia Mayor Michael Nutter also spoke about his dedication to the rights and well-being of the LGBT community, before Secretary of Health and Human Services Kathleen Sebelius came out for the keynote address.

She pointed to executive orders barring hospitals that accept Medicaid or Medicare from discriminating against LGBT patients, and noted both the Patients Bill of Rights and the Affordable Care Act as game-changers for LGBT health care.

“Central among [American] values is the value of fairness,” she said. “America is at its best when everyone works under the same set of rules.”

She also assuaged fears of those living in states whose administrations oppose universal health care, noting that if those states do not provide insurance exchanges, the federal government will do so in their place.

She also noted her own department is adding questions about sexual orientation and gender identity to the National Health Survey. Those questions are currently being tested in multiple languages. Sebelius said that some worked perfectly well in English, but fell short when done in Spanish.

After enumerating what she saw as the positives of the legislation, she said, “For these reasons, I think the Affordable Care Act is the biggest step ever taken to closing the LGBT health care gap.”

She also pointed to efforts to stem the spread of HIV, which she said started to flag in the late 1990s and the 2000s.

“We weren’t adapting fast enough,” Sebelius said, “and we lost a lot of the urgency we had in the ’90s.”

According to the secretary, there is a renewed effort to focus resources domestically on the most affected communities, all in aid of Secretary of State Hillary Clinton’s stated goal of a “generation without HIV.”

“That is a goal that is now possible to talk about,” Sebelius said. “We have to make sure the United States doesn’t fall behind on that goal.”

Following her keynote, the conference let out for lunch, and the afternoon was filled with break-out sessions on over a dozen topics.

The event was the first in a planned series of similar LGBT health conferences across the nation. Information about those later conferences will be issued in the future, and those interested can request updates at www.whitehouse.gov/webform/sign-updates-issues-impacting-lgbt-community.

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