Pension Boards enhances coverage of gender identity services
A decision by the Pension Boards-United Church of Christ, Inc., will allow the transgender community access to broader insurance coverage at the turn of the New Year. The new benefit will make the United Church of Christ one of the first mainline churches to offer coverage for transgender-specific health services and other treatment related to gender transition.
Full coverage will begin Jan. 1, and includes a lifetime allowance of $25,000.
“The UCC Health, Dental and Vision Benefit Plans are 100 percent self-insured,” said Michael Downs, president and CEO of the Pension Boards. “The Board continuously strives to provide the broadest coverage possible informed by medical necessity, best practices and budget constraints. We are pleased to offer several plan enhancements for 2015, including new coverages for Autism Spectrum Services and Gender Identity Services—a first among most church health plans.”
The UCC isn’t taking this historic step alone, as the Episcopal Church’s medical plan will also begin to cover transition-related procedures and medication starting in 2015.
The Rev. Mike Schuenemeyer, UCC executive for health and wholeness advocacy, and a team of UCC conference ministers (the Rev. Karen Smith Sellers (Minnesota), the Rev. Jim Antal (Massachusetts) and the Rev. Chuck Barnes (Rhode Island)) first met with the Pension Boards five years ago, requesting coverage of gender reassignment services as part of the health benefits plan.
The Pension Boards made the decision to enhance the UCC health plan based on three studies. The most recent of those studies, completed in June, cited support from the medical community and indicated that gender reassignment surgeries were no longer considered experimental.
Frank Loiacano, director of health plan operations for the Pension Boards, and the chairs of the Pension Boards Health Benefits Committee, the Rev. Martha Baumer and the Rev. Sheldon Culver, took over from there. Baumer is a former Executive Council member and Culver is conference minister for the Illinois-South Conference of the UCC. They brought the request to enhance coverage to the Pension Boards Board of Trustees and received approval to include the benefit beginning in 2015.
“It really signals something. Not only are we saying [transgender inclusion is important to us], just as the General Synod did in 2003, but we are also living into it,” said the Rev. Chris Davies, chair of the Transgender Health Care Working Group of the ONA Coalition. “That’s the kind of church I’m proud of.”
The June report found that transgender people in the United States commonly experience stigma, discrimination and violence. While many health insurance plans exclude or limit the coverage of procedures and services related to gender reassignment, those exclusions are being challenged.
“For the people [the insurance policy] does affect, it [transgender-specific coverage] is a life-or-death issue,” Davies said. “I have a prayer of gratitude that there are others who have been waiting for this, and they no longer need to.”
The policy change should only result in a minimal increase to insurance premiums, and coverage is available to active and retired clergy and lay employees and their covered dependents.
“The Open and Affirming Coalition celebrates the Pension Boards’ decision to expand coverage,” said Andy Lang, the ONA Coalition’s executive director. “This is the fulfillment of a dream the Coalition and its transgender members have had for a number of years, that the UCC would be one of the first churches to recognize the legitimate medical needs of the transgender community. We’re proud of the Pension Boards’ directors and staff for taking this step, and grateful for the hard work that went into their decision.”
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