Transgender police officer, others could benefit from new health plan

When Austin police officer Greg Abbink was growing up in New York, he was the middle child in a caring, conservative family, and he was known as Emily.

Abbink, the Austin Police Department’s first openly transgender officer, was born a female but as early as 5 years old he knew he was different. He asked his parents why they made him a girl. When they had him wear dresses to church on Sundays, he recalled recently, “I was totally not in my body.”

The feeling was exacerbated by the time he reached high school, and his body started developing.

But after college, the Army, and a decade on the Austin police force, he came out as transgender in April and underwent chest reconstructive surgery, a step towards a physical reflection of how he feels.

He had to dip into his retirement savings to pay for the surgery, which cost him more than $8,000 out of pocket because the procedure was considered cosmetic.

But now he and other City of Austin employees who are transgender could benefit from a health care plan that includes surgical care and hormone therapy, a treatment Abbink started this year and plans to continue for the rest of his life.

After Austin City Council members on Dec. 11 approved a resolution that directs the city manager to incorporate “transgender-inclusive benefits” in its health insurance package, Abbink said, “they’ve legitimized me.”

For city employees struggling with their identity, and some who perhaps “simply can’t afford to identify” as transgender, “this might be the tipping point,” he said.

The council approved the resolution on consent, meaning that it voted in favor of it and other resolutions at the same time without discussion.

But during a work session two days earlier, as city officials considered the action, they were unsure precisely how much it could cost to incorporate transgender-inclusive benefits starting in the next fiscal year.

Mark Washington, director of the city’s human resources department, said health plan actuaries for Austin determined that sex reassignment surgeries would cost between $25,000 and $100,000 each, but that officials are expecting few people will take advantage of that option.

An estimated third to half of a percent of the population identifies as transgender, according to the resolution, and 42 cities across the country provide transgender-inclusive health care coverage.

The resolution’s sponsor, Council Member Mike Martinez, said the cost of expanding the benefits would be negligible while demonstrating the city’s anti-discrimination policy in health care coverage.

Michael Crumrine, an Austin police detective who is president of the Lesbian & Gay Peace Officers Association, said he wasn’t surprised that Austin would move to expand health coverage, adding that the city is acting on its word to encourage a diverse workforce.

“This is an equity issue for us,” Crumrine said. “This is a big deal — it really is.”

Correction: This story was updated to correct the name of the association for LGBT Austin Police Department employees. It is the Lesbian & Gay Peace Officer's Association.

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