Tovar v. Essentia Health

Employers and health plans should be aware that two recent federal decisions have recognized that the non-discrimination provision in the Affordable Care Act prohibits discrimination on the basis of gender identity. Plans cannot categorically exclude coverage for procedures to treat gender dysphoria.

In Boyden v. Conlin, the U.S. District Court for the Western District of Wisconsin found that the state’s exclusion of gender reassignment-related procedures from the state employees’ health insurance coverage constitutes sex discrimination in violation of Section 1557 of the Affordable Care Act (the “ACA”) and Title VII of the Civil Rights Act. Section 1557 of the ACA prohibits discrimination and the denial of benefits under a health program or activity, any part of which is in receipt of federal financial assistance, on the basis of race, color, national origin, sex, age or disability. The plaintiffs, two transgender women employed by the State of Wisconsin, also alleged that the exclusion violated the Equal Protection Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment.

This case involved the exclusion of “procedures, services, and supplies related to surgery and sex hormones associated with gender reassignment” from the health insurance coverage. Pursuant to the exclusion, the health plan did not cover hormone therapy involving gender reassignment surgery, or the surgery itself. Defendants argued that the exclusion did not discriminate on the basis of sex because the plan excludes coverage for all cosmetic treatments for psychological conditions, and because the exclusion simply prohibits coverage for gender reassignment procedures, not because plaintiffs are transgender. The court disagreed, finding that the case constituted a “straightforward case of sex discrimination” because the exclusion treated people differently based on their natal sex. The court also found that the exclusion implicated “sex stereotyping by limiting the availability of medical transition … thus requiring transgender individuals to maintain the physical characteristics of their natal sex.”

The court also found liability against the state on plaintiffs’ Equal Protection Clause claim. In applying heightened scrutiny review, the court concluded that the state failed to show that the exclusion was the product of cost concerns or concerns about the safety and efficacy of gender reassignment surgery and hormone therapy. Because the state could not put forth evidence of a genuine reason for the exclusion, the court found in favor of plaintiffs on the Equal Protection Claim.

Two days after the decision in Boyden, in Tovar v. Essentia Health, the District Court for the District of Minnesota held that Section 1557 prohibits discrimination on the basis of gender identity. In that case, plaintiffs alleged that Essentia Health and HealthPartners Inc. violated Section 1557 by sponsoring or administering a plan that categorically excluded coverage for all health services and surgery related to gender reassignment. Section 1557 incorporates four federal civil rights statutes that prohibit discrimination on the basis of: race, color and national origin (Title VI); sex (Title IX); age (ADEA); and disability (Rehabilitation Act). Concluding that Title IX’s prohibition against sex discrimination should be read as coextensive with Title VII, and noting that courts have recognized a cause of action under Title VII for sex discrimination based on gender identity and gender-transition status, the court determined that “sex discrimination encompasses gender-identity discrimination.” The court thus concluded that Section 1557 prohibits gender identity discrimination and denied defendants’ motion to dismiss.

The court also declined to stay the action pending resolution of Franciscan Alliance, Inc. v. Burwell, in which the Northern District of Texas issued a nationwide injunction enjoining enforcement of the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) regulations providing that Section 1557’s prohibition of sex discrimination encompasses gender identity discrimination. The Minnesota court concluded that a stay was not warranted because its conclusion that Section 1557 prevents discrimination based on gender identity is based on the plain reading of the statute and does not rely on the Franciscan Alliance decision.

Employer Takeaways

These two cases are the latest in a series in which plaintiffs allege that their employer sponsored health plans are designed in a manner that discriminates based on gender identify in violation of Section 1557 of the ACA and Title VII of the Civil Rights Act. While an earlier decision (Baker v. Aetna Life Insurance Co., 228 F. Supp. 3d 764 (N.D. Tex. 2017)) by the Northern District of Texas declined to find a cause of action for gender identity discrimination under Section 1557, these decisions are in line with the current trend to allow gender identity discrimination claims to be pursued under Section 1557. Therefore, while HHS continues its current policy of non-enforcement of allegations of gender identity discrimination under Section 1557, employers should be aware of provisions in their group health plans that exclude coverage for transgender benefits and litigation risks that these provisions may pose.

Notably, the plans in both Boyden and Tovar included categorical exclusions for services and/or surgeries related to gender reassignment or transition. These categorical exclusions often are a red flag. By contrast, in Baker, the plan did not categorically exclude gender reassignment procedures; there, the insurance company denied the plaintiff’s request for breast augmentation surgery as not medically necessary. The Baker court found in favor of defendants on both the Section 1557 and Title VII claims. Thus, employers are advised to review their plans to ensure that services to treat gender dysphoria and related conditions are made available to their covered employees.