Students at the University of Maryland, College Park could have the cost of sex-change surgery covered by their health insurance next school year, joining a nationwide trend of private- and public-sector employers offering the benefit.
Insurance firms vying to cover the roughly 3,100 students who use the university health plan have been asked to structure proposals to cover sex reassignment surgery. The university expects to choose an insurance provider for the 2014-2015 school year this month.
Transgender-rights advocates say that because surgical gender reassignment is so rare, offering the benefit comes with minimal cost and could be a powerful recruitment and retention tool.
"Even just the possibility that students could obtain these services goes a long way toward providing a welcoming campus," said Joe Ehrenkrantz, the Student Government Association's diversity director.
Fifty universities across the nation and hundreds of Fortune 500 companies cover sex reassignment surgery — a trend that gathered steam in the past decade amid a growing acceptance of lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people in the U.S.
That acceptance, bolstered by changes including the legalization of same-sex marriage in more states, set the stage for college students to ask for the surgery coverage, said Anand Kalra, of the Transgender Law Center in Oakland, Calif.
"Historically, people have been trying to make things work in the gender they were assigned at birth, but more and more we're seeing people being able to come out younger," Kalra said.
But whether the University of Maryland decides to offer the coverage depends on how much it would add to premiums paid by all students on the plan, said Sacared Bodison, director of the university's Health Center. She expects it to add about $12 to $15 to the current premium of $1,363 a year, an increase of about 1 percent.
If the bids from insurers come in significantly higher, Bodison said, she would seek student input. The idea to explore offering the coverage, she said, was "really instigated by students."
Mykell Hatcher-McLarin, a senior from Baltimore who was born female but identifies as male, started an online fundraiser and is saving from a part-time campus job to pay out of pocket for chest masculinization surgery. The procedure is expected to cost at least $7,000.
"You see yourself in a certain way and your physical self doesn't match up with it, and there's nothing you can do but get surgery," said Hatcher-McLarin, who is on his mother's health care plan, which doesn't cover the surgery. "It's something that I want for myself but it's also something that I need."
Hatcher-McLarin, who has advocated for transgender-friendly policies on campus, said he plans to use a Maryland-based surgeon who doesn't take insurance, but that many of his transgender friends would like to get their operations done by a popular surgeon in Florida who takes all types of insurance.
Hatcher-McLarin, 21, said the university has become more accepting of transgender students since he came out two years ago. But he expected that adding the coverage would stir some opposition on campus. He pointed to a recent decision to offer mixed-gender housing on campus for students who prefer to live with the sex with which they identify or with friends of a different gender.
"There's already a conversation around exclusive housing and making exceptions for transgender people, so I'm confident it'll come up," Hatcher-McLarin said.
The university does not track how many students on campus identify as transgender and could not estimate how many would take advantage of the benefit. The Transgender Law Center estimates 2 percent to 5 percent of the general population is transgender to some degree, though the percentage of people who undergo surgical transition is much smaller.
For the University of Maryland, College Park, several recent measures were aimed at making transgender students feel more welcome on campus. The university already covers hormone therapy for transgender students under its health insurance plan, and the University System of Maryland last year added "gender identity or expression" to its anti-discrimination policy.
Ehrenkrantz said advocates on campus were encouraged by studying what other universities were doing with transgender health benefits.
Fifty universities — none in Maryland — currently cover sex reassignment surgery, including Yale, Northwestern, American and Harvard, according to Campus Pride, an advocacy group that tracks the issue. Another 19, including UMCP, cover hormone therapy.
"When people don't have proper coverage, sometimes they turn to self-medication or self-harm as ways to cope," said Nick Sakurai, associate director of the LGBT Equity Center at College Park.
"Surgical transition is not something that every trans person is interested in having, or needs to have, but I think for those that need that access, it can be an issue of quality of life. It can be an issue of not having depression, not having anxiety," he said.