Senators want answers on Trump administration shutdown of women’s health helpline


U.S. Sen. Chris Van Hollen, D-Md., is expected address potential U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development budget cuts Friday in east Baltimore. (Julia Schmalz / Bloomberg via Getty Images)

U.S. Sen. Chris Van Hollen, D-Md., was among a group of Democratic senators pressing the Trump administration to explain the abrupt shutdown of a medical information helpline for women. (Julia Schmalz / Bloomberg via Getty Images)

SILVER SPRING — A group of Democratic senators, including Maryland’s Ben Cardin and Chris Van Hollen, is pressing the Trump administration to explain this summer’s abrupt shutdown of a medical information helpline for women.

The Department of Health and Human Services Office of Women’s Health toll-free hotline had been running since 1998, fielding calls from tens of thousands of women seeking help regarding pregnancy, breastfeeding, domestic violence, sexual assault, mental health, and other medical areas.

No formal announcement for the closing of the hotline was made. Constituents of Cardin and Van Hollen informed them of the hotline’s sudden inactivity in July.

“We continue to believe that the telephone helpline provides a service that cannot be entirely replaced by online resources alone,” the senators wrote on Aug. 27 to Health and Human Services Secretary Alex Azar and Deputy Assistant Secretary Dorothy Fink, director of the office than ran the helpline.

The other senators on the letter were Ron Wyden of Oregon, Amy Klobuchar of Minnesota, Bob Casey Jr. of Pennsylvania, Tammy Duckworth of Illinois and Maggie Hassan of New Hampshire.

Cardin spokeswoman Sue Walitsky said the senator’s office initially reached out to the health and human services agency as soon as the termination of the helpline call center was discovered.

She said the department’s answers were unsatisfactory, prompting a more formal letter from the senators.

The letter acknowledged that current law doesn’t require the helpline, but said it has proved essential, especially to the poor, seniors and people of color who do not have access to online resources. That includes one in eight black and Hispanic individuals, one in four seniors, and one in eight people in rural areas.

The senators asked the administration for answers by Sept. 30.

The department has yet to respond to the senators, Walitsky said.

HHS spokesperson Tara Broido told Capital News Service in an email that the Office of Women’s Health had proposed modifications to the contract for its website and hotline services. However, the department and contractor could not come to an agreement, which allowed the contract to expire and for the line to be terminated, she said.

The department is planning to respond to the senators’ letter before the deadline, Broido added.

In the meantime, she said the department is encouraging the use of the Office of Women’s Health website and social media channels as resources while the agency considers additional services to create.

The fate of the employees of the call center is unknown, although it was reported in a recent press release that they were laid off.

Broido said the Office of Women’s Health wasn’t aware of the helpline employees’ status.

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