Penn adds transgender employee insurance

Sexual reassignment surgery coverage for employees will be effective July 1

· February 28, 2012, 11:17 pm   ·  Updated March 1, 2012, 2:02 am

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A year after deciding not to extend insurance coverage to transgender employees seeking gender reassignment surgery, Penn has reversed its decision.

The University announced on Feb. 28 in the Penn Almanac that coverage for transgender benefits will be extended to include sexual reassignment surgery under the Aetna Point of Service II plan.

Members of Penn’s LGBT community — who have lobbied for the addition of transgender insurance over the past few years — greeted the news with enthusiasm.

“I am very pleased,” LGBT Center Director Bob Schoenberg said. “The University has done a good thing and the right thing, and I’m very glad about it.”

The change in policy will be effective July 1.

Although transgender students have had access to insurance coverage for reassignment surgery since fall 2010, yesterday’s announcement marks the first time that coverage has been extended to faculty and staff.

According to Schoenberg, this change comes as the result of a long process of lobbying and advocacy work.

“There were a lot of people who worked on this issue and advocated for the change,” he said. “It was not just members of the LGBT Center staff or just members of the LGBT community. There were many people who felt this was the right thing to do.”

About a year ago, Penn declined to provide insurance for employees seeking gender reassignment surgery, citing financial constraints and cost containment as factors leading to the decision.

“Penn has studied this topic for several years, and based upon research that was done, we came to the conclusion that it is an issue of medical necessity,” Susan Sproat, executive director of benefits for Human Resources, wrote in an email. “We are happy to now include this as an eligible covered service.”

Sproat added that, while recent data suggests the average cost of each surgery will be approximately $16,000, “we have no clear estimate of utilization” for overall cost.

With Tuesday’s announcement, Penn joins a short list of schools that offer this type of insurance to transgender employees.

According to the Human Rights Campaign, American University, the University of Michigan, the 10 University of California schools and Harvard University are among the institutions that offer some form transgender coverage for faculty and staff — though the exact details of the schools’ programs vary substantially.

While College junior Jake Tolan, vice chair of political affairs for the Lambda Alliance — the umbrella organization for LGBT student groups — said the exact number of transgender employees who might opt for coverage under Penn’s new plan is unclear, he hopes many will at least be aware that the plan is available.

“We have the coverage, but it’s still a matter of educating people how to take advantage of it, pointing out where the pitfalls in the system may be,” he said.

Though Tolan said Tuesday’s development was “wonderful,” he acknowledged that he was slightly disappointed with the level of publicity the University gave to the announcement. Penn devoted two sentences on the sixth page of the Almanac to news of the coverage availability.

“If I had my way, I would have liked the University to have made a more explicitly political statement about it,” Tolan said.

Sproat wrote that Penn followed “standard communications protocol” with the placement and weight given to the announcement in the Almanac.

Regardless, many are encouraged by the fact that the expansion of insurance benefits will help to maintain Penn’s reputation as a trendsetter among LGBT-friendly college campuses.

“Penn is absolutely a leader of the pack on LGBT issues, but unless we continue to make progress on these fronts, we’re going to risk losing talented staff to other universities,” College sophomore and Lambda Alliance Chair Hugh Hamilton said. “I’m very proud that the University has made this decision.”

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