UI Board of Trustees passes addition of gender confirmation surgery for Urbana campus

By Megan Jones

Next semester, Chip Austin, a transgender graduate student, will have the ability to take advantage of a surgery he would not otherwise have been able to afford without student health insurance: gender confirmation surgery. 

“I’m going to be able to take advantage of this coverage, and that’s going to treat my gender dysphoria,” Austin said. “This is going to be very beneficial to my personal safety along with my mental health.”

Gender dysphoria, listed in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-5), arises when a person feels uncomfortable with the gender they were assigned at birth. Gender confirmation surgery is one of the disorder’s known treatments.

At Thursday’s Board of Trustees meeting, trustees approved the addition of gender confirmation surgery to the student health insurance plan for students at the Urbana campus, although trustee Timothy Koritz and student trustee Mike Cunningham voted in opposition. 

“We’re trying to balance our own personal points of view… while also representing the taxpayers and the people of our state,” said board chairman Christopher Kennedy.

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Austin said he believes having this coverage will encourage a more trans-friendly culture on campus. 

“There are a lot of trans students who are closeted or afraid, and having this coverage there is telling them that it’s okay to be trans on this campus, and that is very important,” Austin said. 

Justin Ostrowski, Illinois student senator and senior in LAS, and Stephanie Skora, trans junior in LAS, joined the Student Insurance Advisory Committee during the fall 2013 semester to encourage the inclusion of gender confirmation surgery on the student health insurance plan. 

The surgery increases health insurance costs by $2.22 for undergraduate students and $2.88 for graduate students per semester, Ostrowski said, who added that surgery costs are uncapped under the plan. 

“I am so grateful for the support shown by the board,” Skora said. “I’m glad that they didn’t let any personal or moral views influence them, and that they did the right thing for their students and for the campus.”

Cunningham voiced concern against the addition because he was made aware of the proposal “17 days ago.” In an interview on Feb. 24, he said he believes this fee should go through a student referendum before being approved to decide if students truly support this.

“In the past, we’ve never done a referendum or a student election on tuition, student insurance or mandatory fees,” said Renee Romano, vice chancellor for student affairs. “In terms of gender reassignment, the medication and counseling is already mandated by the ACA.”

Cunningham is the only student trustee to have a vote on official board matters because the Urbana campus’ trustee currently holds the single vote between the three student trustees. He voted in opposition of adding the surgery, despite support on the issue from the student trustees of the Chicago and Springfield campuses. Kennedy voiced concern that Cunningham bucked the trend of the student-voting trustee representing the majority opinion of the three students. 

“I don’t think that this is critical to this vote, but I think it is critical to our process of creating a collegial environment,” Kennedy said. “Maybe we’ll revisit that after today.” 

Similar coverage was approved for the Chicago campus last spring, where the coverage underwent consideration for two years, said Chicago campus student trustee Danielle Leibowitz.  

On the Urbana campus, the new student health insurance plan’s cost for the 2014-2015 school year, which includes the surgery, will increase 15 percent, or $37 for undergraduates and $48 for graduates. Chicago and Springfield health insurance rates were approved at a 2 percent and 29 percent increase, respectively. 

One percentage point of the 15 percent increase is for the gender confirmation surgery, while 13 percentage points of the fees are due to coverage mandated by the Affordable Care Act and Illinois state requirements. An additional 1 percentage point covers University administrative costs. Students have the option of opting out of student health insurance. 

The health care plan will be reviewed next year, as the current plan serves as an “emergency extension;” however, Skora is not worried about the coverage being denied, as the Urbana trustee will only act as an adviser to whichever trustee has the vote. 

Skora, who is the president of the Campus Union for Trans* Equality and Support, a registered student organization for trans students, said the organization is looking forward to moving on to new projects, such as creating more unisex bathrooms on campus.

Megan can be reached at [email protected] @MeganAsh_Jones.