Thanks to the Affordable Care Act and subsequent legal decisions, our nation’s healthcare providers are banned from discriminating against patients based on sexual orientation or gender identity. But in Pittsburgh and nationwide, advocates say structural bigotry remains a reality for LGBTQ patients seeking medical care.

Small policies like binary gender choices on intake forms or a lack of unisex restrooms can add up to an institutional culture that leaves LGBTQ patients alienated from their healthcare providers — and thus, less likely to seek treatment.

“The primary concern for many individuals is the cultural competency of providers,” said Carlos Torres, interim executive director of the Persad Center, an LGBTQ-focused human services organization based in Lawrenceville. “While the provider may not be intentionally creating an unwelcoming environment, some of the actions taken by the provider itself or surrounding staff can create an environment that feels unwelcoming.”

In order to foster a more inclusive care environment, this week UPMC Health Plan announced a series of new initiatives aimed at better serving LGBTQ members. The healthcare giant now has a dedicated staff for transgender members, an option for in-network physicians to identify as LGBTQ-friendly and a new policy requiring all staff members working with patients to undergo sensitivity training.

“UPMC Health Plan is committed to assisting all members to fully understand their benefits, access services and live a healthy life and our goal is to provide the best overall experience for members in the LGBTQ community,” said John Lovelace, president of government programs at UPMC Health Plan, in an announcement about the program. “Our work is driven by community participation and partnerships as we strive to become a national model for how an integrated delivery and financing system cares for and supports the LGBTQ community.”

Speaking to NEXTpittsburgh, Torres noted that announcement comes at a particularly fraught moment in the history of gay rights in America.

“The rights of LGBTQ people are under attack,” said Torres. “We have seen a trend in recent years of efforts to either deny rights to members of the LGBTQ community or legislate how individuals will access healthcare facilities or even public facilities.”

Among its many forms of advocacy, the Persad Center works with healthcare companies, corporations and local government to provide the kind of training touted by UPMC.

“Feeling like an environment is welcoming and respectful is huge,” Torres told us. “We want to be treated with the same level of dignity and respect as any other person in our community. When that respect is extended, we’re happy to participate in all aspects of being a full citizen.”