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Baligh Yehia (far right), Gregory Blaschke and Jesse Ehrenfeld at the White House LGBT Enrollment Summit.

Baligh Yehia, a self-described LGBT advocate and a doctor who treats HIV, is on a mission for LGBT advocacy in health care.

An instructor of medicine and attending physician at the Philadelphia Veterans Administration Medical Center and the Penn Presbyterian Medical Center, Yehia was recently invited to the White House Briefing on Obamacare and the LGBT Community conference.

The conference focused on how to provide the nation’s LGBT community with access to the newest addition to Obamacare — a system called the “Health Insurance Marketplace” that will allow individuals to shop around for a private health care insurance plan that best meets their needs.

However, Yehia has been working to improve LGBT rights on campus and in the national sphere long before this event — as a self-identified gay male, Yehia “wanted to advocate for the community that [he] was a part of.”

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When Yehia first came to Penn in 2009 as a part of the department of infectious diseases, he immediately started looking for ways to work for LGBT rights on a national scale.

He began by serving on the LGBT advisory committee for the American Medical Association, offering advice to board members on various issues related to LGBT affairs in the sphere of public health. This past June, he was elected chair of this committee.

Soon after serving time with the AMA, Yehia decided to bring his advocacy work to the surrounding community. This year, with the help of the Provost’s Excellence Through Diversity Fund, he created the Penn Medicine Program for LGBT Health, which works to bring leaders in the local LGBT community together to generate a discussion about prominent health issues and ways in which they can be solved.

“I realized that there was a need locally and that Penn could be a big part of championing these issues,” Yehia said. “This is a group that has not had much representation for a long time.”
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Now, after returning from the White House conference on LGBT health, Yehia is focused on getting the word out to the LGBT community at Penn about how the new health care system could affect individuals’ coverage.

This task may prove to be a difficult one, for the LGBT community has historically faced problems with gaining access to the right kind of health insurance or any coverage at all, Yehia explained.

LGBT individuals fall through the cracks of existing health care policies for a number of reasons. For example, gender identification can be problematic in the application process, and transgender individuals often find it difficult to access surgical procedures typically associated with either males or females. Many same-sex couples have also experienced difficulty getting on the same plan as his or her partner.
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“People in the LGBT community may be skeptical of the new health care system because they are used to being excluded or denied,” Yehia said.

A main topic of discussion at the Washington meeting was a new website called Out2Enroll, which is launching on Oct. 11, National Coming Out Day. The website will notify anyone who signs up about how and when to enroll in the new health care system while providing information about the variety of health care options for LGBT individuals.

Back on campus, Yehia said, “My role is to start meeting with community members to see what we can do once the website kicks off. I want to let the people know this [website] exists and that there is help out there if you do not understand the nuances of the new system.”

He is also partnering with Chris Bartlett, the executive director of the William Way LGBT Community Center in Center City.

For now, a clear, organized and public discussion is what Yehia sees as the next step toward LGBT equality in the health care field. “Over time, culture has changed, and the only way this change can keep happening is from the inside out — there needs to be a voice so that people can be comfortable with who they are,” Yehia said.

Related: Wharton to include LGBT faculty in Diversity Action Plan

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