HHS withholds thousands of comments on proposal for religious groups, says it's 'working through' responses 

HHS collected more than 12,000 comments in a request for information but has posted only 80.

HHS received thousands of comments on its plan to ease healthcare regulations for faith-based organizations but has posted just a fraction of them publicly. And most of those support the effort. 

The goal of the agency's request for information was to gain a greater understanding of the role religious organizations play in the healthcare system and to devise better ways to engage with these groups.

The Department of Health and Human Services also said that it would take a look at policies that impact faith-based organizations to ensure they are not overly burdened when engaging with HHS or the healthcare system as a whole.  

The agency reports it received more than 12,300 comments between Oct. 25 and Nov. 24. But it had publicly posted just 80 of them as of press time. Sources told Politico that it's no coincidence that those 80 comments are mostly in support of the plans. 

Although some comments urge the agency to uphold the separation of church and state, for example, many cite personal beliefs and the value of religious organizations that provide healthcare services to their communities.

"As a family physician with a worldview that acknowledges a loving God who has authority that supersedes any person or government, I cannot comply with recent federal legislation including the HHS Transgender Mandate, which would require me to prescribe hormonal therapy for gender transition," reads one comment.

"It is important for religious-based organizations to participate in HHS programs and receive public funding because faith-based organizations promote healthcare services to the community," reads another. 

HHS defended the decision to withhold thousands of public comments. 

"There has been a voluminous response to the [request for information], and the center's team is working through a review of submissions," Shannon Royce, director of HHS' Center for Faith-Based and Neighborhood Partnerships, who is overseeing the process, said in a statement to Politico. 

Changes made as a result of the request could significantly impact access to abortions, birth control or care for transgender patients. The request was issued about a month after the Trump administration offered faith- and moral-based exemptions to the Affordable Care Act's contraceptive mandate for employers. 

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Attorneys interviewed by the publication expressed concern that not posting all comments may violate the First Amendment or government transparency laws, but HHS said that these rules don't apply to a request for information as they would a proposed or draft rule. 

Some advocacy groups that issued responses to the request were also mystified that their comments were not posted by HHS, as they had already been made public elsewhere. HHS still has time to post additional comments, according to the article. 

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The discussion about HHS' request for information occurred in tandem with reports that the administration had banned certain words from use in official documents, including instructing the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention to avoid terms like "fetus" and "transgender." 

Both agencies have pushed back against that report, however. CDC Director Brenda Fitzgerald, M.D., said that "there are no banned words" at the agency, and HHS spokesman Matt Lloyd said the report was a "mischaracterization."