(Washington, DC) – The US government’s decision to lift a discriminatory ban on Medicare coverage for gender reassignment surgery is an important step toward health care equity for transgender people, Human Rights Watch said today.

The Departmental Appeals Board of the US Department of Health and Human Service (HHS) issued the landmark ruling on May 30, 2014. The ruling is a significant development for transgender people’s access to basic health care services and is likely to encourage other public and private insurers to adopt similar policies.

“The decision by HHS to allow Medicare coverage of gender reassignment surgery is a significant victory for transgender people’s right to basic health care services,” said Graeme Reid, director of the lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender (LGBT) rights program at Human Rights Watch. “The ruling removes a tremendous barrier that for years had denied transgender people the right to make decisions about their own bodies.” 

The ban was enacted in 1981, and stated that, “Because of the lack of well-controlled, long-term studies of the safety and effectiveness of the surgical procedures and attendant therapies for transsexualism, the treatment is considered experimental.” Today, a growing body of scientific evidence and professional medical organizations – including the American Medical Association, the American Psychiatric Association, and the American Psychological Association – support access to gender reassignment surgery as a form of treatment for gender dysphoria.

The ruling is the result of an administrative challenge filed by the American Civil Liberties Union, Gay & Lesbian Advocates & Defenders, and the National Center for Lesbian Rights. The challenge requested a scientific review of the policy’s adherence to current standards of medical care, and ultimately led to its reversal. The case was presented on behalf of Denee Mallon, a 73-year-old transgender woman and a Medicare beneficiary, whose doctors recommended gender reassignment surgery as treatment for gender dysphoria.

“The decision on Medicare coverage for gender reassignment surgery has broader implications,” Reid said. “It should serve as a precedent to allow transgender people full autonomy in determining their gender identity in all legal and medical settings.”