Two Tennessee women are suing the state over its health insurance plans for public employees after learning their health policies specifically exclude coverage for gender-affirming care.
Gerda Zinner and Story VanNess, the plaintiffs in the case, became aware of the coverage gap after they scheduled surgeries to address their gender dysphoria and were denied insurance coverage.
“It’s very similar to what you see in any research you read about: anxiety, depression, increased risk factors,” VanNess said at a news conference Thursday morning. “This is how I feel. Gender dysphoria is a pretty powerful thing and I haven’t been able to find health care that has allowed me adequate access.”
The lawsuit alleges that state policies exclude “otherwise covered” treatments except for, or related to, sexual transformations,” which the plaintiffs argue is discriminatory and unconstitutional.
VanNess worked as a special education teacher at a Knox County public school from 2016 to 2022, and Zinner is a consultant at the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga. Both had access to the Tennessee Public Employee Health Benefits Program through their jobs.
The University of Tennessee and the Knox County Board of Education, as well as several Tennessee insurance committees, are named as defendants in the lawsuit along with the state.
“We have not yet seen the suit, but we look forward to reviewing it and vigorously defending the state,” said Elizabeth Lane, a spokeswoman for the attorney general’s office.
A spokeswoman for Knox County Schools, Carly Harrington, said the district was unable to comment due to the ongoing lawsuit.
A University of Tennessee system spokesman said the university generally does not comment on pending lawsuits.
“It is our practice to not comment on contentious issues,” said Melissa Tindell, a spokeswoman for the system at the University of Tennessee. “The UT system, its campuses and institutes do not have a separate health insurance policy. Our employees are offered the opportunity to participate in the state of Tennessee health insurance plans.”
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Both women filed sex discrimination complaints with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission in August 2022 and each received a right to sue notice from the Department of Justice in May, according to the lawsuit.
“Unlike all of my coworkers, who are cisgender, as a trans woman the health insurance I pay for like all of my coworkers is not giving me all the care I need, because of this discriminatory exclusion,” Zinner said. “Because I’m transgender, I’ve been denied medical treatment that I’ve thought about for a long time and talked to my doctors about. We can all agree this is the next step forward.”
VanNess quit her job last summer, in part because her insurance didn’t cover the transgender-related procedures she needed.
“It’s been rewarding work,” VanNess said. “It was amazing. I loved my students and they loved me, but I made a difficult decision to leave that job, also because I couldn’t access the same care as the other teachers I’ve worked with. I’m not able to live my life in a fulfilling way, in a healthy way, thanks to this discriminatory practice.”
Ezra Cukor, the attorney for the Transgender Legal Defense and Education Fund representing Zinner and VanNess in the lawsuit, has encouraged the state to settle the case and expand insurance coverage.
“Every major medical association agrees, and employers and insurers across the South and across the nation have it covered,” Cukor said. “But the state of Tennessee refuses to cover transgender assistance for its hardworking employees and their families just because of who they are.”
The lawsuit was filed in federal court in Nashville. A federal judge ruled against a Georgia county in a similar case last year, finding its health care policy discriminatory because it only affected transgender employees. LDEF represented the employee, a Houston County sheriff’s deputy, in the case.
“Time and time again, courts have ruled that denying people health care because they are transgender is not only morally wrong, it is also illegal,” Cukor said.
Areena Arora and Keenan Thomas of Knoxville contributed to this report.
Lucas Finton is a criminal justice reporter with The Commercial Appeal. He can be reached at [email protected] and followed on Twitter @LucasFinton.
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