Center for Reproductive Rights Sues Department of Health and Human Services for Failing to Comply with Freedom of Information Act Requests

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(PRESS RELEASE) —Today, the Center for Reproductive Rightsfiled a complaint against the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) for failing to produce records related to the Office for Civil Rights’ (OCR) operations and enforcement of civil rights laws.

Lawyers say the complaint, which comes after two Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) requests went effectively unanswered, is critical in revealing shifts in OCR’s priorities that harm the office’s efforts to combat discrimination and protect patient privacy. 

In 2018 the Trump administration created the Conscience and Religious Freedom Division (CRFD) within OCR purportedly to enforce religious and moral refusal laws. While the stated rationale for the establishing this division was to handle an increase in religious and moral refusal complaints, historically only an extremely small fraction of the complaints received by OCR are related to these issues. Despite this, HHS sought to increase CRFD’s budget by over $1 million in Fiscal Years 2019 and 2020, while simultaneously reducing overall funding for OCR.

On August 30, the Center for Reproductive Rights submitted two Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) requests seeking budget and staffing details of the CRFD and information related to OCR’s HIPPA enforcement activities. Although a 2009 law enacted by the Obama administration specifies that any funds collected as a result of Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act (HIPPA) violations must be used to enforce health data privacy and security regulations, suspicion has been growing regarding the funds’ distribution

“There is simply no reason to hide this critical information from the public. Every day ordinary Americans rely on the Office of Civil Rights to do its job and protect them against discrimination,” said Katherine Gillespie from the Center for Reproductive Rights. “The public deserves to know how the Trump administration has retreated from this critical enforcement role and we must hold them accountable.”

HHS has failed to share any information or provide a final response within 20 days since the initial requests were submitted, which is required by law.

“The Trump administration has repeatedly used the Office of Civil Rights to pursue a politically motivated agenda at the expense of protecting patient privacy and enforcing civil rights laws,” said Kalpana Kotagal, a partner in Cohen Milstein Sellers & Toll PLLC's Civil Rights & Employment practice. “Americans have a right to understand the justification for increasing the budget of this division—which is a solution in search of problem—while slashing funding for critical offices that combat discrimination and protect patients.”

The Center previously filed a FOIA request seeking information to understand why HHS created the CRFD. The Center for Reproductive Rights is represented by Cohen Milstein Sellers & Toll throughout this litigation.