Federal women’s health office obscures lesbian and bisexual fact sheet online

(Sunlight) – Lesbian and bisexual women will no longer be able to navigate to a page related to their specific health needs on the Office of Women’s Health website.

The Office of Women’s Health (OWH), operating within the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS), is responsible for advancing important women’s health issues and coordinating work pertaining to women’s health across HHS. The office notes on its website that it promotes policies, campaigns, and programs “around health disparities, violence against women, HIV and AIDS, trauma-informed care, health across the lifespan, and the provision of health care.”

Since May 2017, OWH has altered or removed several links and webpages from its website, which was visited approximately 700,000 times over the last 30 days. The Web Integrity Project is releasing two new reports today that detail these changes.

The first report provides an overview of removals from the OWH website by evaluating changes to the website’s “A-Z Health Topics page.” The second report documents the way in which the website’s key resource about lesbian and bisexual health has been made inaccessible. These targeted removals have not been proactively communicated on the website publicly, as is required by federal record keeping guidelines.

Today, in conjunction with the release of our reports, Politico reported on our findings about the removals of resources, including the removal of the “Lesbian and bisexual health” page, from the OWH website.

According to HHS, no information has been suppressed on the OWH website. HHS told Politico that, during a routine update, “the outdated lesbian and bisexual health pages were removed and the health content was integrated into the relevant health topics pages across the website.” This conflicts with our findings. Instead, we found that some resources have gone missing and that other similar remaining content relating to lesbian and bisexual health, which was last updated in 2009, has been rendered difficult to access.

Hager Sharp, the communications firm that manages the OWH website, referred Politico’s questions about these changes to HHS. Politico notes that HHS, and not the communications firm, determines the OWH website’s content.

A wave of removals

One of our new reports, “Overview of HHS’s Office of Women’s Health Website Overhaul: Removal of Resources and Corresponding Link Alterations on the A-Z Health Topics Page,” analyzes changes to the website’s overall structure and its “A-Z Health Topics” page, demonstrating the continued removal of resources from the OWH website over the last ten months. We revealed many of these changes by comparing archived versions stored on the Internet Archive’s Wayback Machine of the website’s pages.

While some links and pages have been added since May 2017, such as a link and corresponding page on “Asthma,” other links and pages have been removed.

Certain links that remain correspond to pages that have been removed. For instance, a link for “Screening tests and vaccines” remains on the “A-Z Health Topics” page, but its corresponding page is no longer accessible. In other cases, both the links and the pages they correspond to have been removed. These include links and pages with information about “Breast cancer,” “Healthy aging,” “Men’s health,” and “Lesbian and bisexual health.”

Our other new report, “Removal of Webpages and Links Pertaining to Lesbian and Bisexual Health from HHS’s Office of Women’s Health Website,” details the removal of the “Lesbian and bisexual health” page and links to that page. Future reports will detail other removals.

While some of these removed materials can be found on a public Web archive collected by the Federal Depository Library Program Web Archive, the OWH website does not link to or mention these archives.

For many of the removed links and pages, remnants of their topics can still be found on the OWH website. The website’s blog still contains posts under the topics “Healthy aging” and “Men’s health,” and other blog posts related to breast cancer and vaccines remain. Searching for “lesbian” using the website’s search bar, for example, yields a “Lesbian and bisexual health” fact sheet, which has been unavailable for months at its previous URL and was quietly put up at a separate URL. The document was last updated in 2009, compared to the removed lesbian and bisexual health webpage which was last updated in 2012. The fact sheet is also not linked from any other pages on the website, remaining inaccessible by navigating through the website. A webpage with content from a 2014 report, “Recognizing the needs of lesbian, bisexual, and transgender women,” provides information on OWH’s efforts to promote LGBT health and also remains live.

But these pages, which provide less comprehensive information and do not focus on directing users toward  resources on other websites, do not serve as replacements for the important removed pages and resources.

LGBTQ health deemphasized at HHS

There are other indications that OWH has deemphasized access to LGBTQ health information over the last six months. The OWH Twitter account, which has approximately 1 million followers, has made no mention of the term “LGBT” since November 2016, under the Obama administration.

Despite precedent for doing so in recent years, the Twitter account did not mention lesbians and bisexuals during LGBT History Month in October 2017. The last tweet referencing LGBT health specifically was in October 2016.

Twitter’s search feature shows that the account published similar tweets in October 2012, 2013, and 2014, and the HHS Region 10 account published a tweet in October 2015 with a link that corresponded to the OWH fact sheet for “Lesbian and bisexual health.”

This “Lesbian and bisexual health” fact sheet answers questions such as “what challenges do lesbian and bisexual women face in the health care system?” and “what can lesbian and bisexual women do to protect their health?” It also aggregates links to other websites and resources on topics that might be relevant to the health needs of lesbian and bisexual women.

The inaccessibility of this fact sheet on the OWH website is part of a trend at HHS of deprioritizing LGBTQ individuals and their health needs under the current administration.

Another recent Politico article describes various ways the Trump administration has softened and stripped away LGBTQ-friendly policies over the last six months. In October 2017, HHS released a version of its Draft Strategic Plan, which made no mention of LGBTQ health. The plan under the Obama administration, in contrast, mentioned LGBTQ health “in at least four different places,” according to Politico.

Earlier in October, the Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services withdrew a 2014 proposed rule which would have ensured that Medicare- and Medicaid-participating facilities recognize and afford the same rights to people in same-sex marriages as any others.

Then, this January, HHS established the Conscience and Religious Freedom Division within the Office of Civil Rights (OCR), which would be tasked with enforcing a proposed rule to “protect individuals and organizations from being compelled to participate in procedures … when it would violate their religious beliefs or moral convictions.” These procedures could include abortions, as well as treating transgender patients who seek to transition.

The inaccessibility of the “Lesbian and bisexual health” fact sheet on the OWH website adds to a list of examples of HHS removing language that emphasizes its committment to LGBTQ health. Unlike instances mentioned above, however, OWH has not publicly announced these changes with press releases and accompanying documentation.

Instead, OWH quietly removed access to public information about lesbian and bisexual health. A new user of the OWH website would never even know the fact sheet is there.

Originally published by Sunlight Foundation by