Salt Lake County benefits to cover gender dysphoria treatment, including reassignment surgery

Health care • Shorthanded council’s temporary Democratic majority approves change to help afflicted employees.

A divided Salt Lake County Council extended health care coverage Tuesday to county employees or their dependents who have gender dysphoria, a condition causing an individual to self-identify with a gender other than the person's birth gender

With two Republican members of the County Council absent, the council's four Democrats pushed the measure through on a 4-3 vote. Councilman Steve DeBry led the GOP resistance — he lost an effort to get the matter pulled from the agenda until a later meeting — focusing on Democrats' timing in bringing up the issue and saying it should be addressed in regular fall budget deliberations.

But Councilman Arlyn Bradshaw, who spearheaded the push, said every delay in extending coverage causes hardship — emotional and financial — for county employees who need assistance addressing this condition, which is recognized in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, published by the American Psychiatric Association.

"For those impacted, who need the benefit, every day is crucial," Bradshaw said. "Every day we drag our feet, the more we're not taking care of county employees. It's appropriate to move forward."

He brought up the matter after a group of five county employees approached Mayor Ben McAdams' office and the council, complaining that their requests for this benefit were denied.

"There may be more going forward," Bradshaw acknowledged, observing that because coverage has been extended, more people may come forward and seek aid.

Even so, he said, the numbers will be so small that they won't even trigger a formal budget adjustment. County Human Resources Director Michael Ongkiko estimated that, at most, a case involving four levels of treatment would cost the county $136,000.

Those treatment levels include mental-health services, hormone treatments, reassignment surgeries and corrective surgeries. All four will be covered in the Regence and SelectHealth care plans used by county employees.

DeBry said he requested the measure be pulled from the agenda so he could educate himself more on the subject. "I just expected the courtesy and the opportunity to delve into the issue and decide the right thing to do," he said. "I feel I've been betrayed. I feel I've been abandoned."

The Democrats countered that the issue was pulled from the agenda once before — and that's all that's been allowed previously in the council's informal agreement about tabling matters.

GOP Councilman Richard Snelgrove shared DeBry's disdain for changing the health-benefits package now, rather than in budget talks.

He also doubted taxpayer costs will be so minimal, predicting that extending benefits to this small group will encourage other groups with special issues to come forward, seeking comparable coverage.

Council Chairman Max Burdick, also a Republican, said he could have supported the extension of mental-health and hormone treatments, but the "lack of information, weak presentation and absence of process caused me to be unfavorable."

What's more important, Bradshaw said, is that Salt Lake County has decided to "recognize all of the health care needs of individuals."