Health Care & Public Health

Student Health Coverage for Transgender

For around a decade now, gays, lesbians, and their supporters have been fighting very publicly for equal rights under civil law—most famously, their right to marry. With this wave of publicity, young people in the United States are growing up in an increasingly accepting culture. At Berkeley, this is something we value deeply and are able to experience every day, just like most other university students. However, many people are unaware of the issues faced by people who don’t fit the usual categories of sexual identity or orientation, especially the transgender. According to Shane Windmeyer, the executive director of Campus Pride, a national organization focused on supporting such students, “Trans issues are new to many campus communities. You ask a lot of administrators about it, even at places that are familiar with lesbian and gay and bisexual issues, and they look at you kind of blankly.”

There are slow changes on college campuses, however, in support of transgender students, including in university-sponsored health insurance programs. Most think this is due simply to gradual societal acceptance, but the medical community may have much to do with it as well. The American Medical Association and the American Psychiatric Association have declared that they now consider gender reassignment surgery, on top of hormonal treatment, to be medically necessary when prescribed by a physician. This has encouraged several universities to begin making drastic changes to their student health coverage plans. Last week, Brown University became the 36th university in the US to offer medical insurance coverage for sex-change surgery-related medical expenses. Not all universities have such extensive coverage plans, however.

Donnie Collins, a sophomore in visual arts and media at Emerson College, came out as a transgender man during his freshman year. He has since been planning gender reassignment top surgery, which includes a double mastectomy, on top of hormonal treatments. The expensive procedure is not covered by Emerson’s student health insurance, however, because Emerson, along with many other universities, deems top surgery a cosmetic plastic surgery rather than a necessity. Donnie submitted a petition for a trans-inclusive policy, but it was denied.

Donnie is a member of the Emerson chapter of Phi Alpha Tau, the nation’s oldest communicative arts fraternity. Dedicated to supporting their new brother, they decided to raise money to support his cause, originally setting a goal of $2,000 on the funding site IndieGoGo. The support was so overwhelming that funds surpassed $16,000 within weeks. With the financial resources now to complete his transformation, Donnie is scheduled for surgery in May.

With the publicity surrounding Donnie’s story, new light has been shed on university student health plans. Many of the nation’s top universities—including Harvard, Cornell, Penn, Northwestern, and MIT—cover transgender-related medical costs, though not all cover gender reassignment surgery. Apart from the 36 schools that do cover these surgery expenses, 25 cover the related hormone therapy only but are considering discussion on expanding coverage. Unfortunately, many others still find these surgeries too radical and too rare to justify altering health care plans.

While the transgender community and its allies fight for increased student health plan coverage for their identity specific medical expenses, it is important to remember that smaller steps can be taken to ensure that they feel as comfortable as possible in their current bodies. Kindness, acceptance, and providing general support may seem like small steps, but these small changes can make a great difference.

Article by Charlott Vallon

Feature Image Source: LSU College of Human Sciences and Education