Georgia settles suit, agrees to pay for gender-affirming care for trans workers under state health plan

Micah Rich, a staff accountant at the Georgia Department of Audits and Accounts, said he is thrilled the state agreed to include transgender health care in its employee insurance policy. Rich was a plaintiff in a now-settled lawsuit alleging the state plan was discriminatory. Ross Williams/Georgia Recorder

Georgia state employees and their families who are insured by the Georgia State Health Benefit Plan can access transgender-related health care after the state agreed to a $365,000 court settlement with three employees.

"When I was able to get the medical treatment I needed, I finally felt whole," said Benjamin Johnson, one of the plaintiffs in the lawsuit. "I feel like this is the person I was meant to be, and my mental health has improved drastically. I hope that this settlement means that other trans Georgia state employees can feel the joy and relief I have felt having gotten the medical treatments that I needed."

The health plan covers about 660,000 people, including employees of public schools and their families.

Johnson, who worked as an elementary school media clerk, filed suit in December alongside Micah Rich, a staff accountant at the Georgia Department of Audits and Accounts and an anonymous state employee whose young adult child was enrolled in the state plan.

(READ MORE: Some providers are dropping gender-affirming care for kids even in cases where it's legal)

Prior to the settlement, state coverage excluded operations to change one's sex and related services, even when recommended by a doctor as necessary care. Recommended treatments for gender dysphoria – a feeling of strong distress because of one's gender at birth – can include adopting a new name and style of dress, taking hormones or undergoing surgery.

Attorneys with the Transgender Legal Defense and Education Fund and Bondurant Mixson & Elmore LLP said the old plan would reject services like mastectomies and hormone treatments for transgender patients even though the same treatment would be approved for a different purpose, which they said amounted to discrimination against transgender people.

Under the settlement, the state's health plans will contain a provision defining transgender health care coverage. Exclusions of trans-related care will be removed, and the state will be barred from making similar exclusions, the Transgender Legal Defense and Education Fund said in a statement.

(READ MORE: Alabama Attorney General wants to enforce ban on gender-affirming medication)

The $365,000 settlement will be split among the three state employee defendants, the anonymous defendant's child and the Campaign for Southern Equality, a nonprofit organization dedicated to advancing LGBTQ+ civil rights in the South.

"In a year when transphobic extremists have pushed restriction after restriction for transgender people's access to necessary health care, a development like this that will enable transgender Georgians to more easily access care is a huge victory," said Holiday Simmons, director of healing and resilience for the Campaign for Southern Equality.

Last month, Georgia's ban on hormone treatments for transgender minors kicked back into effect after a short injunction. A federal judge temporarily paused the program but reversed her own decision after the 11th Circuit Court of Appeals, which includes Georgia, ruled in favor of a similar bill in Alabama. That case, brought by families of transgender children, continues to wind its way through court, with attorneys for the families also arguing that offering treatments for other conditions but not for gender dysphoria is discrimination.

"Our win today isn't precedent because the court didn't rule — we were able to negotiate getting the exclusion removed without much litigation — and the subject matter is a little different, since our case deals with employment," said Transgender Legal Defense and Education Fund Legal Director David Brown. "But many of the same arguments do apply. At the heart of both cases is the importance of trans people having access to the health care that they need, and today's settlement emphasizes that there's no justification — legally, medically, morally or in any other way — to discriminate against transgender people who are simply seeking the same health care that everyone deserves."