Metro Weekly

Federal court rules Alaska’s denial of health care to transgender woman is unlawful discrimination

Jennifer Fletcher sued the state after being forced to pay $25,000 to cover medically necessary surgery

Jennifer Fletcher – Photo: Lambda Legal.

Last week, a federal court found that the state of Alaska unlawfully discriminated against a transgender state worker when it denied her insurance coverage for transition-related surgery due to an exclusion in her employee health care plan.

Jennifer Fletcher, 37, a legislative librarian, sued the state after her employer-sponsored plan, known as AlaskaCare, denied her coverage in 2017 for gender confirmation surgery due to the exclusion.

As a result, Fletcher was required to pay more than $25,000 in out-of-pocket costs to pay for the surgery and related recuperative care, even though the state of Alaska’s consultant had estimated in 2016 that the cost of coverage for the surgery would be negligible in terms of the burden shouldered by the state.

In 2018, the AlaskaCare plan began covering transition-related hormone therapy, categorizing it as medically necessary, but has kept in place its policy — which dates back to 1979 — refusing to cover the cost of gender confirmation surgery.

Fletcher filed a complaint with the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, which found in March 2018 that there was reasonable cause to believe the state had violated Title VII of the Civil Rights Act.

Enlisting the help of Lambda Legal, Fletcher sued the state in June 2018, alleging that she had been discriminated against her based on her sex. The state responded, arguing that the denial of care was not motivated by Fletcher’s sex.

Related: Alaska state employee heads to court to challenge trans surgery exclusion in health care plan

In his opinion, District Judge H. Russel Holland of the U.S. District Court of Alaska found that the state had “adopted and relied upon a formal, facially discriminatory policy,” noting that the material facts of the case were not disputed by either party.

“[Fletcher] was treated differently because of her natal sex. Under the provisions of AlaskaCare, ‘a natal female born without a vagina qualifies for coverage of a vaginoplasty, but not the plaintiff[] here because [her] natal sex is male,'” Holland wrote. “If plaintiff’s natal sex were female and it was medically necessary for her to have a vaginoplasty to correct a congenital defect, coverage would have been available under AlaskaCare. But, because plaintiff’s natal sex is male and she was seeking to transition to a female, coverage was not available.

“Plainly, defendant treated plaintiff differently in terms of health coverage because of her sex, irrespective of whether ‘sex’ includes gender identity,” Holland added. “AlaskaCare covers vaginoplasty and mammoplasty surgery if it reaffirms an individual’s natal sex, but denies coverage for the same surgery if it diverges from an individual’s natal sex. That is discrimination because of sex and makes defendant’s formal policy, as expressed in the provisions of AlaskaCare, facially discriminatory.”

Tara Borelli, an attorney with Lambda Legal who is representing Fletcher, praised the court’s decision in a statement.

“”Transgender employees should never be forced to endure what Jennifer endured, to be denied potentially life-saving treatment simply because of who they are,” Borelli said. “Jennifer was denied coverage for medically necessary treatment while her co-workers received full coverage for all their health care needs, all because of a discriminatory policy. The court rightly saw that as wrong and found that Alaska broke federal law, which prohibits sex-based discrimination in employment.”

All mainstream medical associations, including the American Medical Association and the American Psychological Association, recognize transition-related surgical treatment is considered medically necessary for transgender people struggling with gender dysphoria.

For that reason, the AMA and other medical organizations have called for an end to exclusions on surgical care in private and public health insurance plans.

“It was stigmatizing and traumatic to have my colleagues receive coverage for their medical needs while I was denied,” Fletcher said in a statement. “I am grateful that the court saw that treatment for what it was — unlawful discrimination — and I hope that this ruling means that no one else will have to go through being targeted for discrimination by their employer. We should all be able to count on our employers to treat us equally, especially for something as important as our health care.”

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