Board of Trustees to review gender confirmation surgery addition to student health insurance

By Megan Jones

A proposal to add gender confirmation surgery to next year’s student health insurance plan was passed on to the University Board of Trustees — but not without reservations.

At Monday’s Audit, Budget, Finance and Facilities committee meeting, in which the plan was passed, several committee members voiced concerns regarding the proposal. 

Concerns regarding medical ethics rose to the forefront of discussion as committee members discussed the permanent effects of the surgery and their uncertainty that 18-year-olds would be able to make such a decision. Additionally, members had reservations regarding the opinions of the parents of students.

Committee members were also worried that 99.9 percent of the student body will not use the surgery and that some of that same percentage may be morally opposed to it. 

Stephanie Skora, president of Campus Union for Trans* Equality and Support (CUT*ES), and Justin Ostrowski, senior in LAS, joined the Vice Chancellor for Student Affairs’ Student Insurance Advisory Committee in October in their efforts to add gender confirmation surgery coverage to the student heath insurance plan, which has been a major goal for the CUT*ES this year. 

According to a presentation during the committee meeting, the cost of the plan will rise 14.6 percent if the proposal is approved — a $37 increase summing $291 for undergraduates. Graduate students will see a $48 increase for a total of $376. 

Student Trustee Mike Cunningham said the gender confirmation surgery would contribute 0.9 percentage points to the rise.

The surgery alone increases health insurance costs by $2.44 per student per semester and is uncapped, Ostrowski said. Skora added that hormones are covered in the current health insurance plan if the student was prescribed by a doctor.

“If I went to somebody on the street and said, ‘Would you pay $3 to save a life?’ an overwhelming amount of them would say yes,” said Skora, a trans* junior in LAS. “These surgeries are the only way to correct the gender dysphoria that people have and are an essential part of actually being able to continue their lives.”

More than 140 students gathered outside the committee meeting, holding signs and yelling chants as they held a demonstration to show that students stand behind inclusive health care.

To help counter the 20 degree temperatures, Chip Austin, a trans* graduate student, returned after a brief absence with a warm cup of coffee. The drink cost $2.34, which he emphasized is only 10 cents less than the surgery fee. 

“It’s a very, very small additional fee to include this coverage, and we don’t see why anyone would oppose it,” Skora said. “We’ve tried to educate the people who would be opposed, but they haven’t listened to us.” 

After the Board of Trustees approved the surgery for the University’s Chicago campus in May, students began to wonder why the Urbana campus does not offer similar benefits, said Vice Chancellor for Student Affairs Renee Romano. 

“We are a flagship institution for this University system, and there is an international eye on this institution,” Skora said. “There’s a precedent. (Not passing this) is against the University’s non-discrimination statement.” 

Ostrowski added that “morality, in this case, is a mask for discrimination.”

“First of all, gender confirmation surgery would never be done unless it is deemed medically necessary by a physician,” Romano said. “And if a person needs that surgery and they don’t get it, that could lead to very serious consequences, not the least of which is depression or suicide. So I think that it is, for some of our students, an equity issue and a social justice issue.” 

The student health insurance plan is typically updated every six years; however, the plan has undergone review because the addition of more benefits is required by the Affordable Care Act. The current insurance plan will expire at the end of this academic year. 

Cunningham said a common misconception is that because it is reviewed every six years, the board needs to add it right now. He said the surgery can be added at any time later on and that this would not be the only opportunity.

Within the Student Insurance Advisory Committee, the faculty members, including the director of McKinley Health Center, supported trans* coverage unanimously. However, problems arose when Skora and Ostrowski realized that the Audit, Budget, Finance and Facilities Committee, a sub-committee to the Board of Trustees, could potentially strip the surgery from the plan. 

“There are certain people on this committee that oppose this coverage and want to tell the board not to approve it and the board listens to them very closely,” Skora said. “Their voice will be weighed very heavily.” 

Ostrowski began to worry when he heard Cunningham held reservations. Cunningham said he was concerned that there is not enough student support and he was made aware of the addition only five days before the meeting, which the committee had been planning since the end of last school year. 

“Students have no idea that this is going on. I’ve talked to the students who sit on the Student Health Advisory Board (of McKinley Health Center) had no idea that this was being brought in front of the Board of Trustees,” Cunningham said. “My fear is that there is not enough student involvement. If this issue is that important, which I think it is and the trans* community thinks it is, then there’s a lack of understanding to me why these conversations didn’t begin in August.”

Other schools within the Big Ten that already have gender confirmation surgery include the University of Michigan, University of Nebraska-Lincoln, Northwestern University, Ohio State University and Pennsylvania State University

“One of the arguments being made in opposition to the coverage is that it’s just a small number of students who are pushing this through back alleys and through administrative committees — that the student body isn’t actually behind this,” Skora said. “That’s not true. Student body is overwhelming behind this.”

The board will discuss approving the proposed plan at its March 6 meeting. Ostrowski plans to continue promoting an online petition, which has more than 2,400 signatures, and will be sent to the board. A similar demonstration will be held during the board meeting.  

Megan can be reached at [email protected] and @meganash_jones.