August 02, 2013

Senator Warren Takes Action in Response to Constituent Letter, Calls on HHS to Expedite Changes to Discriminatory Lifetime Ban on MSM Blood Donation

Washington, DC - After receiving a letter from a Roslindale resident who was not allowed to give blood after the Boston Marathon bombings because of his sexual orientation, United States Senator Elizabeth Warren yesterday sent a bipartisan, bicameral letter to Health and Human Services (HHS) Secretary Kathleen Sebelius expressing concern over the agency's sluggish pace at reevaluating blood donation policies for men who have sex with men (MSM) and requesting information about HHS's ongoing efforts to gather data and review this policy. Senators Enzi (R-WY) and Baldwin (D-WI), Representatives Quigley (D-IL) and Lee (D-CA) also led the letter and 81 of their congressional colleagues, including Senator Edward Markey and Representatives Jim McGovern, John Tierney and Niki Tsongas of Massachusetts signed with their support. The full text of the letter is available here.

The Massachusetts constituent who sent the letter wanted to donate blood to help with the effort following the Boston Marathon bombings and wrote to the Senator, "Therefore I ask you to add your voice to this issue, because it is right, because there is a clear need, and because when lives are on the line, we all want to help." Under current regulations, MSM are banned from donating blood for life. This policy was put in place during the rise of the AIDS epidemic in the 1980s, and is no longer scientifically justified in light of modern blood screening technology.

"For me, this has been a basic issue of fairness and of science - blood donation policies should be grounded in science, not ugly and inaccurate stereotypes," Senator Warren said. "When a Massachusetts man told me he wanted to donate blood during the bombings but couldn't because of his sexual orientation, I dug deeper into this discriminatory ban and I didn't like what I found.  Current policies are contrary to science.  They promote discrimination and don't make the system any safer. It's long past time for HHS to make blood donation policies fairer and more effective."

In 2006, the American Association of Blood Banks, the Red Cross, and American's Blood Centers agreed that the current ban is medically and scientifically unwarranted, and recommended that donation criteria for MSM be changed to one based upon risk for sexually transmitted or transfusion-transmitted infections.  In 2010, the HHS Advisory Committee on Blood & Tissue Safety & Availability described the lifetime ban of MSM donors "suboptimal" because it allows high-risk individuals to donate while prohibiting low-risk donors from giving blood.

HHS is currently conducting three studies that will help to inform the policy changes are currently underway, with completion dates ranging from August 2013 to October 2014.  In March 2012, HHS released a Request for Information (RFI) in order for the public to comment on the design of a fourth study- a pilot program for MSM blood donation. In response, 64 members of Congress sent a letter to Secretary Sebelius, led by Representative Quigley and former Senator John Kerry, supporting the RFI and stressing the importance of the pilot study.

HHS leadership has yet to release information about the design of the proposed study, how study information will be used to shape policy changes, or a timeline for changing this discriminatory policy.  In the letter, Senator Warren and her colleagues request that the criteria used to assess the public comments to the RFI; a copy of a report to HHS leadership on the response to comments and pilot study design; a detailed plan and a timeline for how results from the ongoing studies will be used to inform changes to the blood donation criteria; and whether HHS plans to leverage data from other countries that currently allow MSM to donate to inform their decisions about policy changes, and if not, why not.