Alan Diaz / AP

HHS Trimmed Minority Outreach Pages From Obamacare Website

Nonprofit monitor suggests violation of mission; agency sees routine update.

The Health and Human Services Department’s minority outreach office, beginning early in the Trump administration, removed or relocated online materials designed to orient minorities and non-English-language speakers about benefits under the Affordable Care Act.

So concluded the Sunlight Foundation’s Web Integrity Project, in the latest in its series monitoring subtle and often-unannounced changes to agency websites.

In a study of HHS’s Office of Minority Health, researchers reconstructing past Web pages found that from January 2017 to January 2019, that office removed Obamacare-related webpages, links and references. Acknowledging that different agencies have different interpretations of their obligations for making government materials more readily accessible to non-English-speakers, the monitors questioned the intentions of the website changes.

“The removal of the content undermines access to information about improving healthcare for minority communities, by an agency that was set up to reduce health disparities and which has in the past viewed the ACA as key to that mission,” the group said in a blogpost released on Thursday. “A de-emphasis on outreach to minority communities, in particular, goes against evidence that suggests outreach and access to ACA-related information are central to further reducing health disparities.”

For example, the office removed from the main Affordable Care Act page a description of the Office of Minority Health’s role in implementing the law, “and linked to seven additional ACA-related pages—five of which [the minority health office] has since removed from the site,” the Web Integrity Project wrote. “These additional pages included information specific to different populations, such as the 'ACA Guidance for American Indians and Alaska Natives' page, which featured an infographic that provided information about the steps members of federally recognized tribes or Alaska Natives can take to receive benefits under the ACA. In the months before the removal of this page, references to the term 'Affordable Care Act' in that infographic, as well as the page’s title and text body, were removed and replaced with the phrase 'Health Care Law.' ”

Several routine links to the Affordable Care Act that HHS had provided under the Obama administration were also removed, such as those in the Minority Health office home page's “strategic priorities” section and “what we do” dropdown menu.

The Office of Minority Health, established in 1986 under the Reagan administration, is given an official role in implementing health insurance reform under the Affordable Care Act statutory language, the analysts pointed out.

Asked for comment, an HHS spokesman said, “As is standard website management practice, the Office of Minority Health routinely reviews and updates the content on the OMH website.  We also continue to make improvements to the site by reorganizing content on the site,” Office of Minority Press Secretary Tony Welch said. He said some of materials cited by the Web Integrity Project have been “restructured” and made available.

“As with the ACA, which is administered by the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services,” he continued, the minority health office “regularly supports the initiatives of other federal offices, summarizing or linking to their information and resources. When OMH updates its pages, information that has left the OMH site is still available to the public. “