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New lawsuit targets Tennessee banning some gender-affirming care in Tennessee

Doctor comforting patient. Krisanapong Detraphiphat via Getty Images.
Doctor comforting patient. Krisanapong Detraphiphat via Getty Images.
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A new lawsuit targets Tennessee banning some gender-affirming care in Tennessee.

We spoke with the two women involved and lawmakers who say it all comes down to taxpayer money and how it's used.

"It is a slap in the face to you know, have the state tell me that I can't get the care I need, because I'm trans," says Story VanNess.

Story VanNess is a former Knox County schools employee and one of two Tennessee women suing the state over their public employee health insurance plan.

Attorneys representing Gerda Zinner, 30, and Story VanNess, 38, say the two were denied even though their medical teams deemed the services medically necessary.

“Tennessee’s public employee health benefits program has unlawfully deprived plaintiffs of coverage for essential medical services because of the plaintiffs’ sex and because they are transgender,” stated the 50-page complaint filed Tuesday.

A program now in place in Tennessee — serving nearly 290,000 teachers, state and local employees, lawmakers, and their dependents — provides counseling and psychological treatment for gender dysphoria but does not cover treatment “for, or related to, sex transformations."

"We should, just like everybody else, have access to our health care. The health care that we pay for and, in part, the health care that is provided to all of our cisgender peers," says VanNess.

Representative Todd Warner says gender-affirming surgery is a personal choice, and it's not where taxpayer dollars should be spent.

"It's not something that's life threatening, or something that may be needed to help you sustain life," says Warner.

Gerda Zinner, who works at UTC, is also part of the lawsuit.

"I would strongly disagree. And unfortunately, I think that speaks to a lot of ignorance about this issue, which I think is the reason why this lawsuit is necessary," says Zinner.

She says she cannot find the care she needs without insurance coverage.

"I don't make them enough money to pay out of pocket for a lot of procedures," says Zinner. "I've talked about this with my doctors, and this is the step forward. However, the state has just kind of unilaterally said no."

Tennessee House Speaker Cameron Sexton filed a bill this year that would block insurance coverage for gender-affirming medical procedures.

"We don't think the state should cover. We don't think TennCare should cover it," says Sexton. "The state of Tennessee does not cover it. And in their benefits, that's the state's choice. Just like other insurance companies can choose what to cover and not to cover as well."

The University of Tennessee says...

"As a matter of practice, we do not comment on matters under litigation. The UT System, its campuses and institutes do not have a separate health insurance policy. Our employees are provided the opportunity to participate in the State of Tennessee's health insurance plans."

Ezra Cokur is handling the case for TLDEF.

"What Tennessee's public employee health plan does is it has an exclusion that singles out trans-related care, and says, you know, if you're a trans person, we won't cover the health care that you need to transition. And full stop. That's it," says Cokur. ""What we're challenging is sex discrimination. Other courts who've looked at this type of exclusion, have really readily found that they violate federal protection, but exclusions are equivalent to exclusions violate federal protections against sex discrimination.

In recent years, Tennessee's Republican-led legislature has increasingly advanced anti-transgender policies, including banning doctors from providing gender-affirming care to minors, prohibiting transgender athletes from participating in girls’ sports, and protecting teachers from lawsuits if they don’t use a transgender student’s preferred pronouns.

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