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Back to Section One | Back to Arts & Entertainment
posted Friday, October 7, 2011 - Volume 39 Issue 40
Seattle adds Transgender health care to employee benefits
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Seattle adds Transgender health care to employee benefits

by Mike Andrew - SGN Staff Writer

The Seattle Office for Civil Rights announced Oct. 7 that for the first time, healthcare benefits offered to City employees will cover procedures for Transgender workers.

'Starting on January 1, 2012, transgender health care procedures will be included in all plans,' the statement said.

Seattle now joins San Francisco in offering Transgender healthcare benefits. San Francisco began offering these benefits to their employees, retirees, and their dependents in 2001.

The surprise announcement capped six months of negotiations between several City commissions, the Mayor, the City Council, and a coalition of city unions. It was timed to coincide with the annual open enrollment period in which City employees choose their healthcare plans

'People are skeptical of government,' LGBT Commission Co-Chair Tiffany Nelson told SGN in an interview, 'but they did the right thing - and in a timely way!'

Agreement on the changes had been reached some time ago, Nelson said, 'but the City said 'Let's wait till the open enrollment period' for the formal announcement.

'It's interesting, when we first met with the [City's] H.R. department last spring, my goal was to have this done for open enrollment,' Nelson chuckled. 'Everyone said, 'Oh, it just can't happen that fast.'

Nelson credited the 'concerted efforts' of five City commissions - the LGBT Commission, Commission for People with Disabilities, Human Rights Commission, Women's Commission, and the Immigrant and Refugee Advisory Board. She also noted that Council members Bruce Harrell, Sally Clark, Tom Rasmussen, and Mike O'Brien wrote letters of support for the proposal to make employee health care plans Trans-inclusive.

Nelson told SGN she was most surprised by the strong support the proposal got from the unions that represent City employees.

'When we met with the union reps on the healthcare committee - at first I was reluctant to meet them - all these straight white guys from the union. But they were extremely supportive. It was a wonderful surprise for me!' she said.

'This is a great example of the important role the Commissions can play to change City policy,' said Julie Nelson, director of the Seattle Office for Civil Rights, which provides staff support to all five commissions.

'As we continue to work for social justice, I look forward to more collaboration with our Commissions to create greater equity in City government.'

'I am so pleased to see our policies reflect our values; our value that we will not discriminate based on one's sexual identity. We encouraged our Health Care Committee to remove health care exclusions for the City of Seattle's transgender employees and they did,' City Council member Bruce Harrell said in a statement to SGN.

'I was pleased to work with our City's five Civil Rights Commissions, in particular, the LGBT Commission, to help ensure that our Transgender employees can now get the coverage they need.'

Acknowledging that some people in City government were taken aback to find that health benefits for Trans employees were not already provided, City Council member Tom Rasmussen told SGN that 'sometimes we learn only when a lack of policy is brought to our attention. I'm glad the City responded quickly.'

Veteran activist Marsha Botzer, co-founder and co-chair of Ingersoll Gender Center, told SGN she was 'thrilled' with the announcement.

'I appreciate the City doing this,' Botzer said. 'I really want to credit the commission, and especially the new, intensely active members - they reached out to older activists and made it all come together.'

The story began on March 23, when the five commissions wrote to Harrell, chair of the Council's Energy, Technology and Civil Rights Committee, urging the City to amend the health plans offered to its employees so they would include treatments necessary for Trans employees.

The existing benefit plan for City employees excluded coverage for what it termed 'sex change.'

This was defined in the plan as 'Any treatment, drug, service, or supply related to changing sex or sexual characteristics, including surgical procedures to alter the appearance or function of the body; hormones and hormone therapy; prosthetic devices; and medical or psychological counseling.'

The commissions pointed out that City employees denied health care coverage because of their gender identity could develop debilitating secondary medical conditions, be at higher risk for suicide, and experience increased psychological distress.

Insurance companies might also try to exclude other basic medical and psychological care that they might attribute to the employee being Transgender, they said.

'Many of the Transgender individuals we know describe this as common practice and affirm that it has happened to them,' the commissions said in their March 23 letter to Harrell.

'They describe that once the term 'Transgender' is in the chart, mental health, steroids, or procedures are universally denied. This experience is unfair, especially as non-Transgender patients do not have to prove medical necessity for any number of health care services. This exclusion should be removed &

'The current climate of marginalization and exclusion will only change if the City requires inclusivity from their plans and carriers and then urges other organizations and vendors to do the same. Transgender benefits are not cost-prohibitive, and planned inclusion is simply the right thing to do.'

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