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Insurance Giant OKs Surgery for FTM Emerson Student

by David Perry

EDGE Media Network Contributor

Thursday March 14, 2013

In a heartening turnaround, Aetna, the insurance company that initially turned town FTM transman Donnie Collins's gender reassignment surgery, has now agreed to cover the costs for the procedure.

In a statement, Emerson said it contacted Aetna, its student insurance provider, for "clarification" after Collins's claim was initially rejected, saying that benefits for transgender medical care have been included since 2006.

"The conversations that followed led to the discovery that the policy language had inadvertently not been updated by Aetna on their internal documents. This inaccuracy led to the rejection of coverage," said Emerson officials in the statement. All language pertaining to the subject, Emerson assured, now reflects current policy.

Collins, currently a 19-year-old sophomore at Emerson College in Boston, became a trans cause clbre last month when several outlets,, the Boston Herald, and the Associated Press among them, when the insurance company denied Collin's request for chest reconstruction surgery. For Collins, born physically female but coming out as transgender at 17, it was a crushing blow that sent the teen into a deep depression that many transfolk suffer by having the wrongly gendered body.

Help came in the unlikely form of the fraternity Collins had pledged, Phi Alpha Tau, whose brothers used the IndieGoGo crowd-funding website to create a media blitz for funds to pick up where Aetna left off.

"Donnie's status as a trans student was a non-issue. It wasn't even an afterthought. We just thought he was an outstanding man," Tau Zaman, a senior with the fraternity, told Boston's

"We wanted to show him in an act of solidarity that we supported him," added sophomore Christian Bergren-Aragon, who took Collin's situation to IndieGoGo on Feb. 9. "It's not about raising the money. It's about telling a story of transformation, self discovery, and brotherhood."

By Feb. 26, the campaign hit $12,000 when local Boston media began carrying the story. Once Phi Alpha Tau's efforts became known, another $6,000 came in to bring the total to more than $18,000 the following day. The campaign went on to become the definition of runaway success, surpassing the $8,125 Collins required to total over $20,000 as of Mar. 8.

But with Aetna's about-face, Collins, already on hormone treatments, is now responsible only for meeting the $2,000 co-pay, along with travel costs and post-op care. All overflow funds from the Phi Alpha Tau fundraiser, including the amount Collin's initially sought, will now be donated to the Jim Collins Foundation (not associated with Donnie Collins), a national organization providing transfolk with financial assistance for their gender-affirming transitions.

Due to what has become an inundation of press, Collins has declined further interviews, but Dru Levasseur who along with Tony Ferraiolo is a founder of the Jim Collins Foundation and transgender themselves, spoke to Edge and discussed the implications of the move.

"Aetna and Emerson are doing the right thing and it's time that other insurance companies and colleges follow suit," said Levasseur. "Although many transgender people do not need surgery in their gender transition, for those who do, it is critical that they have access to it."

What is often referred obliquely as "the surgery" can be any number, or combination, of procedures. Collins will undergo the chest reconstruction most FTMs opt for to create a physically masculine pectoral region, and is considered the cheapest type of gender reassignment surgery.

Much more complex, and expensive, are the duel phalloplasty and scrotoplasty (the construction of a penis and scrotum) procedure, and vaginoplasties, where the penis is removed and used to create a vaginal canal. Combined with post-operative care and costs, price tags for these surgeries can pass the $90,000 mark, a cost-prohibitive dollar-amount at which many insurance companies balk. The consequences lead to grim statistics.

"The high rate of attempted suicide in the trans community, 41 percent compared to the 2 percent in the general population, is directly related to denial of medically necessary health care," Levasseur continued. "The American Medical Association and other leading medical associations have called upon insurance companies to lift discriminatory exclusions to coverage because this type of care literally saves peoples' lives."

Additionally, Aetna agreed to foot the bill for Collin's hormone therapy, according to Mother Jones.

Said Levasseur, "We hope that this was not just a response from the press, but a sign that insurance companies are acknowledging what the medical community has known for a long time, that these types of surgeries can be medically necessary and refusing to cover transgender people's health care is discrimination."

Collins will have his surgery this May. On his YouTube vlog, where he has documented the experience, Collins said, "It's about helping a community that really needs help. It's been a really incredible experience; I honestly couldn't be happier with the way things are turning out. I don't even know what to say because the words 'thank you' just don't do it anymore."

David Perry is a freelance travel and news journalist. In addition to EDGE, his work has appeared on ChinaTopix, Thrillist, and in Next Magazine and Steele Luxury Travel among others. Follow him on Twitter at @GhastEald.