The University System of Georgia (USG) has updated its policies to allow employees trans-inclusive healthcare benefits after transgender University of Georgia (UGA) employee Skyler Jay sued the university.
Jay, a catering manager for UGA who you may recognize as the first transgender contestant on “Queer Eye,” sued the university in 2017 after being denied medical coverage by his employer’s insurance, Blue Cross Blue Shield, before undergoing top surgery. Jay appealed the denial, but Blue Cross Blue Shield refused the appeal because his plan was self-insured and had “no flexibility” to override the plan exclusion. Leaders of USG also denied his request to discuss the dispute.
Jay eventually raised the money necessary for the surgery – over $8,000 – through a GoFundMe page and sought to have it reimbursed by UGA while also deciding to challenge the discriminatory policy. Transcend Legal, a law firm owned and operated by trans men specifically challenging trans-exclusive healthcare policies, filed a lawsuit against both USG and Blue Cross Blue Shield on his behalf.
“The fact that transgender employees are not able to access medically necessary care while non-transgender employees have their medically necessary care covered evidences a disparate impact on a protected class,” his attorneys wrote in their complaint.
The judge eventually dismissed the suit against Blue Cross Blue Shield, as the insurance company could only enforce the policies the employer chose. USG’s insurance policies absolved state universities like UGA and the insurance company from covering trans-specific medical expenses like gender-affirming surgery or hormone therapy.
Jay’s suit was eventually successful, with him and USG reaching a settlement that awarded him $100,000. Jay has already received the payment and used it to cover his medical expenses. More importantly to him, though: the policy has since been changed. Now, any USG employee and their dependents are able to receive trans-related care through their insurance. The change officially took effect last month.
“Honestly, I feel like this is history for our community,” Jay told Out after the victory. “Given the administration and the politics facing the transgender community, we’re unfortunately losing a lot of battles right now. At the end of the day, there is so much more work to be done, but this is a huge move.”
For him, the suit wasn’t about the reimbursement. “[It’s about knowing that] there are so many people behind me that have to [go through] the exact same thing and possibly with less resources,” he told Out.
Chanel Haley, the Gender Policy Manager at Georgia Equality, told the Georgia Voice that this issue of transgender healthcare is not a trans issue at all: it’s a human rights issue. “Healthcare should always cover whatever necessities a person needs across the board,” she said. “People are making this into a trans-specific situation, but every American, every Georgian, every person wants access to the healthcare they need. And that does not exclude a transgender person.”
The policy change will affect the over 160,000 people employed by USG at 26 public universities, including UGA, Atlanta’s Georgia Tech and Georgia State, and Kennesaw State. But according to Haley, this victory is important not for its impact on the small fraction of transgender employees, but for the broader message USG is sending to the state government and school systems.
“It’s a social message,” the transgender activist told the Georgia Voice. “How many people transgender individuals are employees of the University System of Georgia? Not many. However, it is extremely monumental for the University System of Georgia to actually take this action. I should hope that the state government is looking and hopefully this will prompt them to move towards creating non-discrimination protections statewide. This also should prompt school systems to allow transgender students to use restrooms that align with their gender.”
She went on to say that, while this victory was monumental, these kinds of conversations should not still be happening – and the federal government should be helming the protection of all people, including transgender people. “The fact that it’s almost 2020 and we’re still having these conversations is disgusting,” Haley divulged. “If our government did the right thing and made sure every person living in the United States was protected, then we wouldn’t be having these kind of debates right now. And the fact that this is also regional is an issue, too. We should all be on the same page across the country – the South should not always be catching up to the rest of the country.”