/ Modified may 1, 2014 7:16 p.m.

UA First of AZ Universities to Cover Transgender Surgeries

Program helps pay for student gender transition surgeries, hormone therapy, behavioral health treatments.

(VIDEO: AZPM)

A new student health insurance plan offered at the University of Arizona, called the “Transgender Benefit,” helps students pay for gender reassignment surgeries.

The UA was the first in-state university to offer transgender students treatments, such as hormone therapy and genital reconstructive surgeries. The health insurance coverage began in the fall of 2013, and is now offered at Arizona State and Northern Arizona universities.

“It’s just a health benefit for treating an illness that is in fact treatable,” said Martie van der Voort, a UA mental health clinician. “Gender dysphoria is one of the few mental health disorders that is in fact curable.”

The benefit also covers behavioral health services and breast, ovary or testis removal.

Fewer than a dozen students have enrolled in the program, van der Voort said.

One of these students is Michael Woodward, a master’s degree student in public health. He was the second student to undergo treatments offered through the health coverage program.

Woodward lived most of his life as a lesbian and didn’t make his transition from female to male until his mid-30s.

“A lot of people ask what the difference is between a lesbian growing up and a trans person growing up,” Woodward said. “There are a lot of similarities, but you know inside that something isn’t right.”

Growing up, Woodward was teased and harassed for being a masculine female, he said. It wasn’t until he met someone who shared similar characteristics that he said he realized he could start living as a man.

“I spent a lot of time praying for breast cancer so I could have them removed because I didn’t want them there,” Woodward said. “I didn’t know I could pay someone to do it and make it look decent.”

The insurance coverage has helped Woodward become closer to completing his transition. However, managing school, internships and getting the surgeries has not been easy, he said.

Woodward plans to graduate from the UA within the next year, but once he graduates, he will no longer get the student health insurance.

“I don’t want to graduate before I am done with my processes because I won’t be able to have the insurance after I graduate,” he said. “Now I am constrained to this certain amount of time.”

So far, the benefit is available only to students.

The Campus Health Service is working to get faculty and family members access to this coverage, said Marian Binder, director of UA Counseling and Psych Services.

However, not everyone supports the program. There are people who believe transgender benefits should not be covered because of their cost, she said.

But, “It has not resulted in any additional costs,” Binder said.

There has also been some criticism from transgender supporters that the benefit doesn’t go far enough.

“For instance, if a male to female trans person would like electrolysis or facial hair removal, that’s not covered, that’s considered cosmetic,” van der Voort said.

Although the transition has not been easy for Woodward, he said he hopes younger transgender students will take advantage of this new health insurance plan.

“So if you can do it while you are in college that is really a good time to do it,” Woodward said. “You are kind of figuring out your way in the world anyway. It is way easier to do it in the correct gender than try to navigate the world in this body you don’t relate to.”

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