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Senate Democrats and more than 300 public-health groups call on Trump officials to reverse HHS language restrictions

In two letters Thursday, a group of Senate Democrats and more than 300 public-health organizations called on top Trump administration officials to lift any restrictions on how Health and Human Services employees communicate in official documents.

The missives come in the wake of reports by The Washington Post that budget writers at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and other HHS agencies were instructed to avoid using “diversity,” “vulnerable” and “entitlement” in the narratives they were preparing for the fiscal 2019 budget process, based on a “style guide” that was part of a lengthy budget guidance document. The letters underscore the extent to which the linguistic guidelines have caused an uproar. Multiple departments, including the Justice Department, have drafted documents on “words to avoid,” and others such as the Environmental Protection Agency and Interior have singled out words such as “climate change” for elimination in official documents.

A CDC official informed employees at the agency's Atlanta headquarters last week that they should also avoid words such as “transgender,” “fetus,” “evidence-based” and “science-based” in their budget narratives. Those words were not listed in the HHS guidance document.

Writing to Office of Management and Budget Director Mick Mulvaney, HHS Acting Secretary Eric Hargan and Centers for Disease Control and Prevention Director Brenda Fitzgerald, the 10 Democrats said that if “these allegations are indeed true, we respectfully request that you immediately reverse these policies. Additionally, we request that you follow up with a written response to Congress regarding your plans to mitigate the adverse effects from these reports on HHS’s commitment to science.”

“Words matter,” wrote Sen. Sherrod Brown (D-Ohio) and nine of his colleagues.

An HHS official said the department will respond to the letters and reiterated that employees misinterpreted the guidance they had received and that no ban on specific words exists within the department.

Separately, representatives of 315 public-health groups wrote Hargan on Thursday to warn that limiting the use of any words could undermine CDC's role as “a leader” in coordinating responses to public-health crises at home and abroad.

“As the nation's premier public-health agency, the CDC cannot carry out its mission of improving the health and safety of all Americans when its staff are urged to avoid using basic phrases that are so intrinsic to public health,” wrote the coalition, which included the American Lung Association, the American Academy of Pediatrics and the Association of Nurses in AIDS Care.

“Science is the bedrock of sound public health and medical decision-making — and it should not be subject to partisan politics. HHS — including CDC — will not be successful in improving the health of Americans affected by these conditions if there is political interference — real or perceived — whether it be aimed at language or at undermining key scientific principles and policies.”