County health plan discriminates against transgender workers

BILLINGS, Mont. (AP) — The Yellowstone County employee insurance plan discriminates against transgender employees because it excludes coverage for surgery, hormone treatment and counseling for people diagnosed with gender dysphoria, the Montana Human Rights Bureau has ruled.

A hearing officer said under the Montana Human Rights Act, and based on a June U.S. Supreme Court hearing, the prohibition against sexual discrimination makes it illegal to discriminate against someone based on their transgender status.

“We believed all along that the Montana constitution guaranteed the rights to individual dignity and that nobody can be denied those rights. It was great to see that solidified today,” Alex Rate, an attorney with the ACLU of Montana, said Friday.

The decision came in a case filed in September 2018 by Eleanor Maloney, a former senior deputy attorney in Yellowstone County, after the county’s health insurance program denied coverage for facial feminizing surgery and counseling to treat gender dysphoria. Gender dysphoria is the distress that comes from identifying as a gender that differs from the sex assigned at birth, according to the Mayo Clinic.

Hearing Officer Chad Vanisko rejected the county’s assertions that it could not be determined whether Maloney belonged to a protected class, The Billings Gazette reported. The Montana Legislature has rejected bills seeking to forbid discrimination in housing and employment based on whether a person is transgender.

“The Hearing Officer finds that Maloney is, in fact, a member of a protected class, and that transgender status is included under a prohibition against sex discrimination,” Vanisko wrote Friday in his summary judgment.

Along with the Montana Human Rights Act, Vanisko cited a June U.S. Supreme Court decision which ruled the Civil Rights Act of 1964 disallowed discrimination in the workplace based on an employee’s sexual orientation or gender identity.

“Prior to that U.S. Supreme Court decision, there was a lot of doubt because in Montana there had not been a court that definitively addressed the issue,” Rate said.

A hearing is scheduled Tuesday to determine the damages owed to Maloney.

Jeana Lervick, chief in-house counsel for Yellowstone County, said the Human Rights Bureau could determine whether the county’s insurance company will need to pay for Maloney’s treatment or if the exclusion of sexual reassignment services has to be struck from the plan.

If neither party is satisfied with the Human Rights Bureau’s decision, they can appeal to District Court, Lervick and Rate said.

Yellowstone County’s health benefits plan still excludes coverage of “medications, implants, hormone therapy, surgery, medical or psychiatric treatment,” to treat gender dysphoria.