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Insurance Coverage for Gender-Affirming Health Care: A Troubleshooting Guide

Here's how to know what your insurance covers and what to do if your services are denied.

Medically reviewed in August 2021

Navigating health insurance can be a struggle for many transgender, gender nonconforming and nonbinary people.

Despite the medical consensus that gender-affirming care is medically necessary and a crucial component of transgender individuals’ mental and physical well-being, many states still allow insurance plans to exclude this care from coverage.

The good news is that state and federal lawmakers across the United States are broadening access to gender-affirming treatments, thanks to the efforts of advocates and gender-diverse patients. Here are some key questions to ask to help you navigate health insurance should you face roadblocks.

How do I know if the service I want is covered?
Each insurance company determines which services it will cover, so the short answer is that it depends on your plan. You should get familiar with your coverage before visiting a healthcare provider (HCP). (You may also get valuable guidance on the ins and outs of insurance from an HCP who is experienced in the care of gender-diverse patients.)

Take a close look at your insurance plan’s booklet, which may also be called a benefit certificate, certificate of coverage, summary plan description or member handbook. If you don’t have one, ask your plan administrator to provide it.

The handbook will describe whether your plan requires pre-authorization, which involves getting permission from your plan before undergoing a specific treatment. The National Center for Transgender Equality (NCTE) offers an online template for pre-authorization letters if you need help getting started.

How can I get my care covered?
Your insurance plan’s requirements for initiating gender-affirming therapy will vary depending on the treatment you’re seeking and the criteria the plan follows for coverage. Most plans follow some form of the guidelines outlined by the World Professional Association for Transgender Health (WPATH) Standards of Care (SOC).

For example, the WPATH SOC requires that you obtain at least one letter from a mental health provider indicating a diagnosis of “persistent” gender dysphoria in order to get chest or genital surgery. Gender dysphoria refers to the distress someone might experience when they feel their gender identity doesn’t align with their physical or physiological characteristics. Not all transgender, gender nonconforming or nonbinary people experience gender dysphoria, but it remains a requirement for obtaining many gender-affirming treatments.

For some surgeries, the WPATH SOC also requires that you are on gender-affirming hormone therapy (GAHT) and have lived continuously for 12 months “in a gender role that is congruent with [your] gender identity.”

Because obtaining these letters can be time-consuming and difficult for many patients, the Gender Affirming Letter Access Project (GALAP) offers resources that can help. This group of transgender, nonbinary and allied mental health clinicians maintains a database of mental health providers who have taken a pledge stating they "believe in an informed consent model where clients can affirm their gender identity without the steep cost of sessions with mental health professionals and reductionist clinical practices." These providers can help provide (after a free consultation) a letter for gender-affirming treatment at no cost.

What if the treatments I’m seeking are excluded from my plan or denied?
If you see exclusions for transition-, gender-affirmation- or gender-dysphoria-related care in your plan, reach out to legal assistance in your state. The National Center for Transgender Equality (NCTE) has a helpful directory of transgender-friendly legal services broken down by state. National organizations like the ACLU, Lambda Legal and the Transgender Law Center also provide legal services across the U.S., often at low or no cost.

To help prepare for the logistical and emotional toll if a procedure you’re seeking is denied, keep records of your efforts to meet your plan’s requirements, including the names of HCPs you contact and the dates, as well as information you are given by insurance administrators.

While coverage depends on the insurance plan, the bottom line is that virtually all denials for gender-affirming care can be challenged by talking to HCPs, legal assistance or state organizations, says Noah Lewis, director of the Trans Health Project at Transgender Legal Defense and Education Fund (TLDEF). Health plans must inform you of denials with a letter that also contains information on the steps you’d need to take to appeal the decision. You can also find templates for crafting appeals letters online if you need assistance.

What can I do if I need more help?
There are several organizations that can help you navigate the insurance system:

  • Out2Enroll reviews and rates the various health plans available on HealthCare.gov.
  • NCTE’s Health Coverage Guide provides step-by-step guidance for people with Medicaid and private health plans. NCTE’s Know Your Rights guide outlines what your legal rights are for insurance, treatment and protection from discrimination and provides a list of helpful government resources.
  • TLDEF’s website contains links to resources, tools, contact information for legal support and a step-by-step tutorial for understanding your insurance.
  • The Queer & Transgender Resilience Book by Anneliese Singh can provide general emotional support during the process.

Connecting with other gender-diverse people, whether in online and offline spaces, and making use of the support systems created by organizations, advocates and activists are all helpful ways to stay afloat during the often-trying process of getting the coverage you need. Having an affirming and culturally competent HCP can also help you anticipate and prepare for challenges that may crop up.

Medically reviewed in June 2021.

Sources:

Kaiser Family Foundation. Demographics, Insurance Coverage, and Access to Care Among Transgender Adults. KFF.org.
Coleman E. Standards of Care for the Health of Transsexual, Transgender, and Gender-Nonconforming People. Int J Transgend. 2012;13.
U.S. Department of Health & Human Services. Section 1557 of the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act. HHS.gov.
American Civil Liberties Union. Legislation Affecting LGBT Rights Across the Country. ACLU.org.
The World Professional Association for Transgender Health. Standards of Care
for the Health of Transsexual, Transgender, and Gender-Nonconforming People. 7th Version. 2012.
M. V. Lee Badgett, Soon Kyu Choi, Bianca D.M. Wilson. LGBT Poverty In The United States. A study of differences between sexual orientation and gender identity groups. UCLA School of Law, Williams Institute. October 2019.

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