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CA lawmakers seek audit of state's LGBTQ data collection efforts

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State Senator Scott Wiener and several other lawmakers have sent a letter to the Joint Legislative Audit Committee asking for an audit to examine the California Department of Public Health's procedures to collect sexual orientation and gender identity data of state residents. Photo: Rick Gerharter
State Senator Scott Wiener and several other lawmakers have sent a letter to the Joint Legislative Audit Committee asking for an audit to examine the California Department of Public Health's procedures to collect sexual orientation and gender identity data of state residents. Photo: Rick Gerharter  

A number of California lawmakers Tuesday officially asked for an audit to be conducted of the state's efforts to collect LGBTQ demographic health data. The request had been expected as the COVID pandemic has brought to the forefront myriad issues in gathering sexual orientation and gender identity information.

As the Bay Area Reporter first reported in December, gay state Senator Scott Wiener (D-San Francisco) had decided to seek a legislative audit via the Joint Legislative Audit Committee in order to examine how the state health department is meeting a legal requirement to collect the SOGI data. Since 2018, a number of California departments and agencies focused on health care and social services were to be collecting SOGI data after lawmakers enacted several pieces of legislation requiring that they do so.

While aggregated SOGI data was to be reported to the Legislature and made publicly available, elected officials and advocates have complained about the difficulty in obtaining any relevant SOGI data. And last March it was learned that the California Department of Public Health was not collecting SOGI data among those infected with the coronavirus.

For months Wiener and other LGBTQ advocates had called on state health leaders to start asking people being tested for the virus if they are members of the LGBTQ community. Without such information, it is unknown what the impact of the pandemic has been on the state's LGBTQ residents, many of whom have comorbidities that put them at greater risk should they become infected with the coronavirus.

Fed up with the lack of action, Wiener authored a bill to require the SOGI data be collected. Last summer Dr. Mark Ghaly, the secretary of the California Health and Human Services Agency, instituted regulations that were expected to result in everyone getting tested for COVID-19 to be asked the SOGI questions. Governor Gavin Newsom then in September signed Wiener's Senate Bill 932 requiring the SOGI data to immediately be collected.

But as the B.A.R. first reported in November, state and most local health officials had not fully implemented the law or the regulations. California is still not reporting how many LGBTQ people have contracted COVID-19 or died from the virus.

And as the B.A.R. noted last week, the state's public health department is not tracking vaccinations among LGBTQ Californians. It means there is no way to know if vaccination sites need to be set up in LGBTQ neighborhoods to ensure members of the community can access the vaccines, similar to what has been done in communities of color across California.

On Tuesday San Francisco District 6 Supervisor Matt Haney and leaders of the city's Tenderloin, where many transgender and queer people live, and Treasure Island communities called on the city to open vaccine distribution sites in the two neighborhoods. Haney pointed to both ranking among the lowest on California's Healthy Places Index and being the only two neighborhoods in San Francisco prioritized under the state's new allocation formula for the 40% of vaccines set aside for communities most impacted by COVID-19.

The Tenderloin ranks 31st and Treasure Island ranks last in vaccine rates in San Francisco, noted Haney's office.

In their letter seeking the state SOGI data audit, the California legislators noted that the COVID-19 pandemic had exacerbated "the urgency behind collecting SOGI data." Reports and studies over the last year have highlighted that LGBTQ people are at greater risk of contracting COVID because of the underlying health conditions they disproportionately have compared to their straight counterparts and work in various front-line jobs that put them in greater exposure to the virus.

Due to the health crisis "it has become abundantly clear that there are glaring issues related to the collecting and reporting of SOGI data both within the department and among the providers and labs they work with," the lawmakers noted in their letter. "We are very concerned with the lack of data and information that the California Department of Public Health has been able to provide since the passage of the aforementioned legislation and now with administration of the COVID-19 vaccine."

They added that, "LGBTQ people face additional barriers that non-LGBTQ people do not, and it is incumbent upon those crafting public policy to identify these barriers and work to fix them accordingly."

In addition to Wiener, Assemblyman David Chiu (D-San Francisco) also signed the letter. He authored the bills requiring state agencies to collect SOGI data. Joining them in calling for the audit were gay Assemblymen Evan Low (D-Campbell) and Chris Ward (D-San Diego), bisexual Assemblyman Alex Lee (D-San Jose), and lesbians state Senator Susan Talamantes Eggman (D-Stockton) and Assemblywoman Sabrina Cervantes (D-Corona).

Gay state Senator John Laird (D-Santa Cruz), vice chair of the committee that oversees audits, had told the B.A.R. that he would ensure the committee members would seriously consider the SOGI audit request once they received it. If approved, it will be some time before the audit results are released.

The audit request lists 22 specific questions the lawmakers would like to be investigated that focus on different issues related to collecting SOGI data. While the audit is tailored specifically toward the state health department, its findings would likely assist the other state agencies required to collect SOGI data, as well as county and local government agencies also attempting to gather better information into the health and social service needs of LGBTQ people in their jurisdictions.

"The SOGI data that we are able to collect is pivotal in helping us to adequately respond to the unique needs of the LGBTQ community. From research, we know that LGBTQ people everywhere experience disparities as it relates to all aspects of their health," wrote the state lawmakers. "In a 2017 article on the National Center for Biotechnology Information's website regarding healthcare disparities among LGBTQ youth, it is cited that LGBTQ youth are at a higher risk for substance use, sexually transmitted diseases, cancers, cardiovascular diseases, anxiety, depression, and suicide as compared to the general population. LGBTQ people generally are also known to receive poor quality of care due to stigma, lack of healthcare providers' awareness, and insensitivity to the unique needs of this community."

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