A transgender woman in New Hampshire has sued her employer over an exclusion in its employee health insurance plan that prohibits coverage for any transition-related treatments or procedures.
Lillian Bernier, a machinist at Turbocam, Inc., a Barrington-based company that manufactures parts for HVAC, automotive, airline, and other industries, has filed a claim with the New Hampshire Human Rights Commission, arguing that the insurance exclusion on gender-affirming care has no medical basis, and discriminates against her on the basis of both sex and disability by denying her coverage for care to treat her gender dysphoria.
Specifically, Bernier claims that the exclusion violates employment nondiscrimination provisions of the New Hampshire Human Rights Act, Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, and the Americans with Disabilities Act.
Bernier, 31, claims that when she sought coverage for doctor-recommended health care, she learned that the company’s self-funded health plan excludes coverage for transition-related treatments such as hormones, counseling, and gender confirmation surgery. As a result, she has been forced to pay out of pocket for medical expenses, and has even delayed some treatments due to her inability to pay.
“I’m proud of my work as a machinist at Turbocam,” Bernier said in a statement. “Like everyone else I rely on the pay and healthcare coverage from my job to support myself and my family. I’m just asking for fair coverage and to be treated the same as my coworkers.”
In her complaint, Bernier asks the New Hampshire Human Rights Commission to investigate her allegations of discrimination and cross-file her complaint with the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission. If the commission finds that discrimination took place, it could set the stage for Bernier to file a lawsuit in state or federal court, reports The Associated Press.
“Providing lesser health benefits to transgender workers is employment discrimination,” Chris Erchull, an attorney with GLBTQ Legal Advocates & Defenders (GLAD), which is representing Bernier, said in a statement. “By maintaining a blanket exclusion of coverage for healthcare related to gender transition Turbocam is trying to sidestep the law.
“Lillian has dedicated her time and energy to the company, including working onsite throughout the COVID pandemic,” Erchull added. “She is simply asking to be treated with the same dignity, humanity and fairness as other employees.”
The complaint also names Health Plans, Inc., a Harvard Pilgrim company that administers Turbocam’s self-funded plan. As a third-part administrator, GLAD claims that HPI assists Turbocam in maintaining and implementing the discriminatory insurance exclusion, including by providing language used in the exclusion, and examples of similar exclusions, in other plans, later adopted by Turbocam.
Health Plans, Inc. told The Associated Press: “While we understand and empathize with the issues raised by GLAD, this employee is not insured by Health Plans, Inc.”
The company added that it merely processes health benefit claims for employers, and that Turbocam has the final say over its health plan design and employee benefits.
Turbocam, a family-owned business that employs over 900 people worldwide, claims to exist “for the purpose of honoring God, creating wealth for its employees, and supporting Christian service to God and people,” according to a mission statement from its president, Marian Noronha.
Jordan Pratt, senior counsel at First Liberty Institute, a Christian legal group representing Turbocam, said in a statement that Bernier and all company employees “have the option of taking a substantial cash bonus that they can use to choose any health insurance or medical services they desire. This should resolve the issue.”
But Erchull told The Associate Press that while business owners have a right to their own beliefs, companies like Turbocam cannot flout nondiscrimination laws and deny equal employment benefits to Bernier simply due to her gender identity.
“The so-called bonus is a red herring, available to Turbocam employees who do not need health benefits and it is insufficient to purchase other coverage,” he said.
Bernier’s complaint is one of many being filed across the United States arguing that insurance exclusions that prohibit coverage for transition-related treatments are unlawful. Recently, three Georgia state employees sued the state over exclusions in their employee health insurance plan that they claim discriminate against them and their transgender dependents.
In September, a federal judge ordered a Georgia county to pay $60,000 in damages to a transgender sheriff’s deputy after finding that the deputy had been discriminated against when she was denied coverage for gender confirmation surgery. And earlier this month, a federal judge in North Carolina struck down a similar exclusion in the state’s employee health plan as unconstitutional because it discriminates based on gender identity, which “necessarily rests on a sex classification.”
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