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The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) is a powerful federal agency. The person who runs it can undermine or expand national health care programs and policies.

Here are just a few reasons why this federal agency is so important, and why you should pay attention to who’s running it.

Key HHS Programs and Offices

HHS plays a direct role in many people’s lives through the programs and offices below. HHS has the power to support these initiatives — or not.

The Centers for Medicaid and Medicare Services (CMS) and the Affordable Care Act (ACA)

CMS runs Medicaid, which helps provide health insurance to people with low incomes. CMS also manages parts of the ACA, which prohibits discrimination in health coverage and requires insurance plans to cover pregnancy care and birth control without a copay.

Title X

Title X provides affordable birth control and other preventive reproductive health care to people with low incomes. HHS has final say on which health care providers — including Planned Parenthood — get funding through Title X. 

Teen Pregnancy Prevention 

The Teen Pregnancy Prevention Program provides evidence-based sex education.

Office for Civil Rights (OCR)

The OCR enforces the laws that ensure equality in access to health care for all citizens.

Office of Refugee Resettlement (ORR)

The ORR is charged with providing care, including sexual and reproductive health care, for immigrant children who enter the United States alone.

Office of Global Affairs

The Office of Global Affairs is HHS’s diplomatic voice — it coordinates international engagement to protect and promote health across HHS and the U.S. government.

The HHS Secretary’s Role

The leading HHS official is called the secretary of health and plays a major role in running the nation’s health care system — including all the programs and offices mentioned above.

The HHS secretary can set the U.S. health agenda and make long-term health care policy decisions for the entire country.

The leader of HHS plays a crucial role in: 

  • Leading nationwide response to pandemics and public health crises, like COVID-19.

  • Communicating  to the Public: The secretary is responsible for sharing accurate and truthful health information  — including sexual and reproductive health care. 

  • Setting Rules and Regulations: The HHS lead can create helpful rules interpreting federal laws such as the ACA — and can eliminate harmful rules on providers and patients that limit access to health care, such as refusal-of-care rules.

  • Answering Requests from States: The secretary can approve or deny requests from states, such as appeals to receive federal funding for programs that limit access to Planned Parenthood and Medicaid, as well as requests to create  programs that expand access to care.

  • Managing Health Care Coverage for Birth Control and Abortion: Oversight of ACA means the secretary can undermine or advance the ACA’s birth control mandate, as well as empower or dissuade health insurance plans from covering abortion.

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