by Shaun Knittel -
SGN Associate Editor
On May 11, Seattle City Councilmember Bruce Harrell, chair of the Energy, Technology and Civil Rights Committee, sent a letter to the Health Care Committee to encourage them to consider removing the exclusion of coverage for the city's Transgender employees.
Seattle Gay News was provided a copy of the letter by Harrell's office. In it, Harrell clearly outlines his support, and the support of Councilmembers Sally Clark and Tom Rasmussen, for the Health Care Committee (HC2) to 'consider removing such exclusions as discussions, negotiations, and policy considerations are made relative to the finalization of the benefits contained in our current four medical plans.'
'As we all know, the health coverage offered to City employees is critically important,' wrote Harrell. 'As we continue to contain our costs of health coverage, we believe it is equally important to consider the values, purpose, and actions contemplated by our city's commitment to social justice and fairness to all employees.'
He said it has long been recognized in our city that individuals who identify as part of the Transgender community are respected and productive employees.
'We believe that our support for all employees should not be based on whether an individual has identified themselves as a member of the Transgender community. Our actions as a city, including the negotiation of benefits in health coverage packages, should recognize this important commitment,' said Harrell.
'It is one of the City Council's goals to pass laws and implement policies that protect the rights, legal benefits, and privileges of all people, irrespective of gender identity and expression,' he said. 'This commitment extends itself to full access to employment, housing, and education, as well as health care.'
In addition, Harrell said the City Council has made it clear that it opposes 'all forms of public and private discrimination when such discrimination is based on the actual or perceived gender identity and expression of individuals.'
'That being the case, we believe that the request to consider the removal of Transgender-specific insurance plan exclusions for our employees is a topic that should be considered and evaluated during your ongoing discussions,' he concluded.
The Health Care Committee meets monthly, and the LGBT Commission hopes that this issue will be on the table for the next meeting, although nothing has been set in stone yet.
COMMISSION APPLAUDED FOR RAISING IMPORTANT ISSUE
Last week, when Seattle Gay News broke the story that the LGBT Commission would meet with Harrell to recommend that the City of Seattle include its Transgender employees in all health care afforded to all of its other employees, many of our readers, local politicians, and even some members of the Transgender community were in shock. Many wondered how a progressive city like Seattle could exclude Transgender employees from health care coverage. The answer, say Transgender advocates, is simple: Boilerplate language.
Almost immediately Seattle Mayor Mike McGinn and some councilmembers declared their support for inclusion in place of exclusion.
McGinn said the issue was something the city should be working to improve on, adding that inclusion is fundamental to a person's physical and emotional wellbeing. McGinn, one of many politicians surprised by the exclusion, said that compared to the significant issue of health care cost for the city as a whole, what the LGBT Commission is asking for is modest.
The city currently provides health insurance to approximately 10,000 employees. It is unknown how many of those employees are Transgender.
City councilmember and out Lesbian Sally Clark says she was also taken by surprise. She said that when the council began to look into the problem, they found out that the boilerplate language had been in the city's healthcare coverage for years. 'The LGBT Commission called this into question,' she said, 'and that is good.'
'I want to change this,' she continued. 'A lot of us do. Unfortunately it is not quite as easy as myself or Mayor McGinn standing up and waving a magic wand to just make something happen. But we are committed to seeing this move forward.'
Ryan Blackhawke, a volunteer at Ingersoll Gender Center, says it is not uncommon for the average citizen - be they Gay or straight, politician or service industry worker - to simply be unaware of such an exclusion. It's just not on most people's radar, he told SGN.
'This sort of thing is part and parcel with any insurance package,' he said. Ryan identifies as a Bisexual Transgender man and has worked with the (now defunct) LGBT Center as well as Sensible Washington and Hands Off Washington, as well as Ingersoll. 'Every job I ever had always excluded Transgender employees from their healthcare plan. Unless someone brought it up, the City of Seattle wasn't going to just look into it.'
Ryan says he 'applauds the Commission for bringing this issue to the forefront.'
This has been a long time coming, he said. 'It's a shame it's taken so long. Unless somebody raises the issue, the squeaky wheel gets the grease. I think people will get behind this and want to see this change. Seattle is one of the most progressive places to live for Transgender people.'
Mara Keisling, founding executive director of the National Center For Transgender Equality, couldn't agree more. 'In a city as enlightened as Seattle it was only a matter of time before this would get noticed,' she said. 'This sort of exclusion language is typical. It comes from old stereotypes mixed with insurance companies who want to get away with covering as little as possible.'
Mara told SGN, 'There is no reason not to undo this. It is not as if Transgender employees are 'up to something' to get the benefit. These benefits are being denied on a discriminatory basis, and it's time to fix that.'
The bottom line, says Mara, is that this issue breaks down to medical necessity. 'Healthcare benefits are only triggered when a doctor says it is medically necessary. That is a decision made by medical professionals, not bureaucrats. I think most Americans understand that.'
The LGBT Commission, Seattle's mayor, and our city councilmembers certainly understand that. The evidence could be found in Councilmember Harrell's May 11 letter.
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