Transgender man sues Dignity Health for not covering transition care

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A transgender man who works for San Francisco-based Dignity Health is suing the hospital chain, which has some Catholic and non-Catholic hospitals, for sex discrimination over its refusal to cover gender transformation treatments.

Joe Robinson is a registered nurse at Dignity's Chandler Regional Medical Center in Arizona, and gets his health insurance through the company. He says he has paid thousands of dollars out of pocket to obtain medical care for gender dysphoria, because Dignity's insurance plan excludes coverage for transition-related treatments and procedures.

In his complaint, Robinson says Dignity's policy violates Title VII of the Civil Rights Act and the Affordable Care Act, arguing that both prohibit discrimination on the basis of sex.

Dignity has filed a motion to dismiss the lawsuit, arguing that Title VII doesn't protect transgender people from discrimination. It acknowledges that a section of the Affordable Care Act prohibits the  exclusion of coverage for gender transition services, but says this rule was implemented after Robinson requested coverage.

On Tuesday, a U.S. District Court judge in Oakland will hear arguments on Dignity's motion.

A spokesman for Dignity Health did not respond to KPCC's question about why it has refused to cover Robinson's transition-related care. "Dignity is committed to an inclusive, respectful and nondiscriminatory workplace," he said in a statement.

Joshua Block, senior staff attorney for the American Civil Liberties Union, which filed the lawsuit on Robinson's behalf, suspects Dignity won't cover gender transition treatment due to its adherence to the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops' Ethical and Religious Directives for Catholic Health Care Services.

Dignity Health has 24 Catholic hospitals that are affiliated with the Catholic church and abide by the directives. Additionally, it has 15 non-Catholic hospitals that follow the organization's Statement of Common Values, according to Dignity spokeswoman Lauren Davis.

Block notes that the suit includes an email correspondence between Daryll Robinson, Dignity's chief human resources officer, and Joe Robinson's fiancée, who had asked Dignity to remove the coverage exclusion.

"We discussed your situation through the lens of our values, our internal policy and our ethical & religious directives," Robinson wrote. He explained that the company found "no evidence of discriminatory practice" in its insurance plan.

"Based on that email, it appears to have been informed by their ethical directives or religious teachings, but we don't know that for sure yet, because Dignity Health hasn't said," Block said.

"These exclusions have no basis in science and are illegal, regardless of whether they're motivated by religious beliefs," he said. "You can't discriminate against employees on the basis of sex."

The ACLU has also sued Dignity Health over the hospital system's use of the religious directives to deny a northern California woman a tubal ligation following a scheduled cesarean section. That case is currently in discovery.

This story has been updated to reflect the fact that Dignity Health operates Catholic and non-Catholic hospitals.