A Wisconsin jury has awarded $780,000 in damages to two transgender state employees who were denied medical coverage for gender confirmation surgery under the state health insurance plan.
Alina Boyden, a teaching assistant at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, and Shannon Andrews, a cancer researcher at the UW School of Medicine and Public Health, filed a lawsuit against the state and its insurers in early 2017 after they were denied coverage for transition-related expenses.
The denial was based on a benefits exclusion adopted by the Wisconsin Group Insurance Board that prohibits coverage for procedures related to “surgery and sex hormones associated with gender reassignment.”
Andrews was forced to pay $21,000 in out-of-pocket expenses when she went forward with the surgery, while Boyden was forced to forego the surgery altogether, even though both women had been advised to receive surgery to treat their gender dysphoria.
Both women claimed that the denial of coverage violated their rights under the Equal Protection Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment, as well as under federal laws prohibiting discrimination based on sex.
In September, a federal judge ordered the state and its employers to cover Boyden and Andrews’ transition procedures, or compensate them for out-of-pocket expenses.
The judge, William Conley, found that the exclusion in the state employee health care plan violated the Fourteenth Amendment, Title VII of the Civil Rights Act, and provisions within the Affordable Care Act that prohibit discrimination based on gender identity.
“[The] Exclusion on its face treats transgender individuals differently on the basis of sex, thus triggering the protections of Title VII and the ACA’s anti-discrimination provision,” Conley wrote in his 47-page opinion.
A jury of eight people subsequently decided to reimburse Andrews $479,000 and awarded Boyden $301,000, reports Courthouse News.
“It was wonderful to see a process where eight ordinary Wisconsinites were able to listen to our story, see that we were harmed and make the decision that they did,” Boyden said in a statement. “No one should have to tell their story to a room full of strangers to justify their medical expenses, but I am thankful I had the opportunity to share my story. I hope this sends a powerful message to fellow transgender people in Wisconsin that our health matters.”
While courts have increasingly found in favor of transgender individuals who have been denied insurance coverage for transition-related expenses, this case marks one of the first times a jury has awarded damages to victims who were discriminated against because of such exclusions.
“Depriving transgender people of access to transition-related care is discrimination and we are pleased the jury awarded Shannon and Alina the money they need to cover their care and for the harm they suffered,” Larry Dupuis, the legal director for the ACLU of Wisconsin, said in a statement.
In the meantime, the state’s Group Insurance Board voted to change its policy regarding coverage for transition-related expenses, meaning that beginning on Jan. 1, 2019, state employees will be able to have their insurance plan cover any surgery or hormones needed to treat a person’s gender dysphoria.
James Esseks, the director of the American Civil Liberties Union’s LGBT & HIV Project, which represented the women, reflected on the significance of the jury’s decision.
“For me, it’s beyond heartening that a jury could meet two transgender women for the first time in a courtroom, understand their stories about the denial of surgery and hormone care, relate to them as fellow human beings, and award them damages like this,” Esseks said. “It’s another sign of how the country is learning more and more about transgender people, which is due to the courage of individual transgender and nonbinary people like Shannon and Alina.”