UMMC to shut down LGBTQ+ clinic amid political pressure
The University of Mississippi Medical Center will dissolve the LGBTQ+ clinic that came under lawmakers’ scrutiny last fall because it offered gender-affirming care like hormone therapy and puberty blockers to trans minors.
About 67 LGBTQ+ adults who have received services at the clinic this year, from routine check-ups to gender-affirming care, will be affected. It’s unclear if trans adults will be able to receive gender-affirming care at other UMMC clinics.
The co-director of the center that oversees the TEAM clinic said he felt “completely blindsided” by the decision to close operations on June 30, which was made without him, and worries about the ethics of suddenly closing a specialized clinic for a marginalized group of patients.
“This is an institution responding in fear not responding in reason,” said Alex Mills, a tenure-track professor of pharmacy at University of Mississippi and the co-director of the Center for Gender and Sexual Minority Health. He oversaw operations at the TEAM clinic. “It’s demoralizing and dehumanizing to the LGBTQ community."
The surprise decision is “based in part” on a legislative committee report released last month that included recommendations for steps UMMC could take to shutter the pioneering TEAM, or “Trustworthy, Evidence-based, Affirming, Multidisciplinary,” clinic, wrote Dr. Alan Jones, the associate vice chancellor for clinical affairs, in an email Thursday morning.
“UMMC will cease operations of the clinic at the end of this academic year, June 30, 2023, read Jones’ email to clinic providers. “All patients who are currently scheduled will be contacted by phone in the coming days about this change. Please work with your department chair to ensure a smooth process during this change.”
UMMC did not respond to questions about the future of clinic patients' care by the time this story published.
Services for trans kids have been limited at UMMC since executive leadership decided the clinic should stop seeing minors after lawmakers complained, according to emails obtained by Mississippi Today. Then the Legislature passed House Bill 1125 earlier this year, banning gender-affirming care for trans youth entirely.
By Thursday afternoon, the webpages for TEAM Clinic and the Center for Gender and Sexual Minority Health had been taken down from UMMC’s website.
“They are erasing us,” Mills said.
He has several new patients scheduled for their first appointment at TEAM clinic tomorrow — now he doesn’t know what he’s going to tell them.
Immediately after receiving the email, Mills wrote to Jones' assistant requesting a meeting, hoping to ask if UMMC could postpone the shutdown for 90 days to give patients a smooth transition.
Mills got an email back from Brian Rutledge, Vice Chancellor Dr. LouAnn Woodward's chief of staff, Thursday afternoon. His request was denied.
"Dr. Jones is not able to meet, but UMMC will be handling everything regarding the UMMC TEAM clinic and its patients," Rutledge wrote. "After this point, I would encourage you to work directly with your UM School of Pharmacy chair or dean on how this impacts your practice responsibilities within your faculty role there."
Mills said his department chair's request to meet with Jones was also denied.
Since the decision was made without him, Mills said he doesn’t know what leadership's transition plan entails.
He’s planning to write up a letter to give to patients tomorrow, but he doesn’t know if UMMC leadership has already made one. He doesn’t know who will be notifying his patients, what they will be told or the kind of care UMMC will give them once the month is up — or even who will be their providers.
He doesn’t know what will happen to the clinic space or to the three grant proposals he just submitted.
“Why isn’t that being communicated to the people who run the damn clinic?” Mills said.
The legislative committee report, published by the Joint Committee on Performance Evaluation and Expenditure Review, or PEER, recommended that UMMC could dissolve the TEAM clinic by “integrating services” back into the medical center’s regular care setting and offer “optional LGBTQ training courses to all staff and students.”
Even if UMMC fully follows PEER’s recommendation and continues to provide gender-affirming care for trans adults, Mills said he doesn’t know if it will be done in a respectful and dignified manner. What made the TEAM clinic unique, Mills said, is that it is a dedicated space where LGBTQ+ patients could be assured that every employee, from the receptionists to the nurses, believe trans people exist and would use the right pronouns.
That’s why the clinic was cofounded in 2015 by Dr. Scott Rodgers, who is now UMMC’s associate vice chancellor for academic affairs: To try to help LGBTQ+ Mississippians overcome one of the biggest barriers to care they face, which is finding providers who respect their sexual and gender identity.
A 2019 press release from UMMC emphasized the clinic’s unique mission: to “ensure every Mississippian has access to accepting, high-quality and holistic primary health care” regardless of their gender identity or sexual orientation.
Mills feared this was going to happen ever since UMMC leadership decided the clinic should stop providing care to trans youth after lawmakers complained last fall. When that happened, Mills said he at least had some input.
“Mind you, it was secretive, but we had a meeting to discuss a plan, at least, that was appropriate and ethical,” he said. “But this is just not how leaders should work. It’s not how you should be conducting yourself in any workplace. It’s just a really big slap to the face.”
Now he is concerned that even if the TEAM clinic is shut down and its services are dispersed across the medical center, it still won’t be enough to appease lawmakers.
“They are trying to erase a group of people,” Mills said. “If they find out it’s going to be throughout other clinics, people are now going to complain and say all of UMMC is doing this.”
“I hope and pray that’s not the case,” he added.
Clarification: Yesterday, WLBT included a photo with an image featuring Blue Cross Blue Shield of Mississippi. Blue Cross is not involved in the closing of the clinic.
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