More companies covering transgender surgery

List expected to grow as HRC adds benefit to Corporate Equality Index

LISA LEFF | Associated Press

SAN FRANCISCO — When Gina Duncan decided to undergo the medical treatment that would make her a woman, she had plenty to fear. The reactions of her children, her professional colleagues and friends. How her body would respond to hours on the operating table. If, at the end of it, she would look female enough so strangers wouldn’t gawk.

What the Orlando mortgage banker didn’t have to be anxious about was how she would pay for two of her surgeries. Her employer of 10 years, Wells Fargo, included breast augmentation and genital reconstruction as coverable expenses under its employee health plan. Duncan was told the San Francisco-based bank already had had 16 other employees transition to new genders and assigned a benefits specialist to walk her through the process.

“They had a template in place, and it was surprisingly supporting and mentally encouraging,” said Duncan, 55, who four years later still works for Wells Fargo. “So much of what I’d heard involved people who ended up losing their job, losing their family, losing their friends, becoming destitute.”

With little fanfare, more and more large corporations, including Coca-Cola, Campbell Soup and Walt Disney, have expanded their insurance coverage to meet the needs of transgender workers. The trend follows a concerted push by transgender rights advocates to get employers and insurers to see sex reassignment the way the American Medical Association does — as a medically indicated rather than an optional procedure.

“We understand people simply get appendicitis, and it is something our community deals with through insurance,” said Andre Wilson, who counsels companies on transgender issues as a senior consultant with San Francisco-based Jamison Green & Associates. “That’s what we need to understand about transsexualism. Not everybody will be diagnosed with Gender Identity Disorder, and in fact, few people will be. But the people who are diagnosed with it really need treatment.”

Among the corporations providing transgender-inclusive health benefits are some leading Wall Street and Main Street brands.

American Express, Kraft Foods, AT&T, Yahoo!, Eastman Kodak, Sears, Morgan Stanley, Price Waterhouse, General Motors and State Farm are among 85 large businesses and law firms that cover the cost of at least one surgery, according to a 2010 survey by the Human Rights Campaign, the nation’s largest gay rights group.

The number is expected to spike this year, when HRC adds availability of surgery-inclusive medical benefits for transgender employees or transgender dependents to the criteria in its annual corporate diversity report card.

To maintain the coveted 100 percent rating when the next Corporate Equality Index is published in the fall, companies will have to offer at least one insurance plan that covers at least $75,000 worth of surgery and other treatments recommended by a patient’s doctor.

“A lot of people are pretty surprised that alongside the cosmetic and experimental treatments that are excluded from mainstream plans, you can see very broad exclusions related to transgender care,” said Deena Fidas, associate director of HRC’s Workplace Project. “In raising the bar…we are addressing the root cause of the problem.”

Stephanie Battaglino, an assistant vice president at New York Life Insurance, has been working with a senior executive at her company to add transgender health benefits to the employee insurance plan. Battaglino, 52, started her transition five years ago, becoming the first New York Life employee to do so openly. To finance her surgeries, which were on a list of procedures not covered by insurance, she borrowed from her retirement account.

“I’ve often said to friends, ‘My transition at work went really, really smoothly, and if I had to do it again, the only thing I would change would be if I had my surgery covered,”’ she said. “To know it was covered and completely reimbursed would have cast everything in a much different light.”

New York Life has been open to the changes and expects to have the expanded coverage in place soon, Battaglino said. But that doesn’t mean the learning curve has been easy to negotiate.

The company initially was uncomfortable agreeing to $75,000 of allowable coverage, she said. But she said that concern was alleviated when it was explained that only two or three employees would likely need the benefits.

“The big misconception is we are going to go broke and all these transgender people are going to come out of the woodwork asking for gender reassignment surgery,” she said.

Some businesses see covering the cost of transgender surgery as not only an important human resources statement, but good business sense.

“Wells Fargo elected to offer this benefit to be competitive as an employer and also to support our comprehensive corporate commitment to diversity,” company spokesman Mary Eshet said.

Joanne Herman, the author of Transgender Explained For Those Who Are Not, said both corporate America and insurers need to understand that genital surgery is not the be-all and end-all in making a person’s appearance match the way he or she feels inside.

For men becoming women, undergoing facial reconstruction may be even more important because it will affect how they are perceived and treated in public, Herman said. The same is true for female-to-male transsexuals and breast surgery. Yet standard insurance plans typically dismiss both as cosmetic, even though people with untreated Gender Identity Disorder are at high risk of suicide and those who get treatment become better workers.

“If you are transsexual, living as anything other than that is a very bleak experience. It’s amazing how much happier I am, how much more productive, social and involved I am as Joanne,” she said.

—  John Wright

FWISD adds LGBTs to policy

Tom Anable
Tom Anable

Change includes bullying in anti-harassment rules, specifically lists gender identity, expression in protected classes

TAMMYE NASH  |  Senior Editor
nash@dallasvoice.com

The board of the Fort Worth Independent School District this week quietly approved a new anti-bullying policy for employees that specifically includes prohibitions based on sexual orientation, gender identity and gender expression.

The policy passed as part of the consent agenda after a second reading during the Tuesday night, Jan. 18 school board meeting. Clint Bond, external communications coordinator for the district, said Wednesday, Jan. 19, that a similar policy applying to students will likely be approved in the near future.

“The student policy hasn’t been changed yet, but it is certainly under discussion,” Bond said. “I think that will go forward and probably will include an update in the near future.”

The student policy already includes “sexual orientation” in the enumerated list of protected classes, but not “gender identity or expression.”

School district officials have said in the past that when they amended the policy to include sexual orientation, they believed that phrase also included gender identity.

The new Employee Welfare Freedom From Discrimination, Harassment and Retaliation policy, in essence, amends the previous policy to include specific prohibitions against bullying and to specifically include “gender identity or expression” and “military/veteran status” among the protected classes, Bond said.

It also switches responsibility for administering the policy from the Human Resources department to the new Employee Health and Wellness Department, he said.

Under the policy, the school district is required to “provide training and counseling as needed promote awareness of this policy and the elimination of bullying, harassment, discrimination, or retaliation based on race, ethnicity, religion, gender, disability, age, or sexual orientation, or gender identity and expression, or military/veteran status throughout the district.”

In addition to bullying, the policy prohibits discrimination including harassment, and briefly defines the terms discrimination, harassment and bullying, although it does not include the term “cyberbullying.” Bond said other policies define bullying to include cyberbullying.

The new policy also describes the process for reporting and investigation any such incidents.

Tom Anable, president of Fairness Fort Worth, said this week the new policy “looks to be thorough” and is “a very positive step forward for the employees of the Fort Worth ISD.”

He noted that the new policy has the support of the local teachers union and stressed that the amendments to the policy were pushed by FWISD administrators, not community advocates.

“This has been an administration-led effort, which is an even more positive sign that they are really looking at their policies across the board,” Anable said. “They pretty much initiated this on their own. And I think it is really nice that they took the initiative in this without a lot of outside pushing.”

Anable acknowledged that the decision to add “gender identity and expression” to the FWISD policy was likely a response to a vote by Dallas Independent School District trustees in November to enact a specifically LGBT-inclusive anti-bullying policy.

But he also stressed that Fort Worth was already moving in the right direction before the DISD vote, and that community advocates have not had to push as hard for the changes, as Dallas activists did.

“Yes, this is pretty much a response to what the Dallas school district did, but Fort Worth had already added ‘sexual orientation’ to their policies back in March. When they saw what Dallas did, they went back and checked their policies. And when they realized some of the language was missing, they immediately started the dialog to make the changes they needed to make,” Anable said.

“We have had some nice conversations with people in the administration, but it hasn’t taken us the kind of effort it took in Dallas to get this done,” he said.

Anable said he was pleased to see that the policy change “went through on the consent agenda and there wasn’t a big uproar about it.” But he warned that might not be the case when the board discusses changing the policy relating to students.

“This has been very low-key, without a lot of fuss. But when [anti-gay activists] hear about this, they will probably be watching for the student policy to come up for a vote,” he said.

This article appeared in the Dallas Voice print edition Jan. 21, 2011.

—  John Wright