Transgender worker denied health care files discrimination complaint
The Boston Globe
By Tonya Alanez, The Boston Globe
A transgender New Hampshire woman has filed a discrimination complaint against her Christian employer for denying her gender-transition health coverage.
Lillian Bernier, 31, has worked as a machinist since 2019 at Turbocam, a Barrington, N.H.-based company that makes parts for the HVAC, automotive, aviation, and space exploration industries. She claims that the company’s refusal to provide gender-transition health care coverage amounts to discrimination against her based on her sex, transgender status, gender identity, and disability.
Bernier seeks treatment for gender dysphoria, which is the distress and discomfort a transgender person feels with their birth sex and when they are “unable to live consistent with their gender identity,” according to the complaint.
“She has needed, and continues to need, hormone replacement therapy, counseling, and medically recommended surgeries to treat her gender dysphoria,” the complaint said.
The complaint was filed Dec. 16 with the New Hampshire Human Rights Commission, as well as the US Equal Employment Opportunity Commission.
“Lillian is just asking to be treated with the same dignity, humanity, and fairness as other employees of the company,” said Bernier’s lawyer, Chris Erchull, of GLBTQ Legal Advocates and Defenders in Boston.
“By maintaining a blanket exclusion of coverage for any health care related to transgender transition, the company is providing Lillian and any other transgender employees, presently or in the future, a lesser tier of benefits,” Erchull said. “It sends a message that her healthcare needs are not legitimate.”
The seven-page complaint alleges that Turbocam and Health Plans Inc., a Westborough company that administers Turbocam’s self-funded health coverage plan, is violating employment nondiscrimination provisions of the New Hampshire Human Rights Act, Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, and the Americans with Disabilities Act.
Bernier, a mother to sons ages 11 and 12, joined the company in 2019 as a mill operator and was promoted to machine operator a year later. She began transitioning in 2020. She has paid out of pocket for medical care and put off critical treatment, according to the complaint.
“It’s frustrating and overwhelming not to be treated equally and not to receive the full benefits my coworkers do,” Bernier said in a statement. “I’m paying into the employee health plan like everyone else, but I have to pay completely out-of-pocket on top of that for my healthcare, which is a stress on me and my family. I take pride in my job and work hard, but no matter how much extra effort I put in, I’m not getting the full benefit of my work.”
According to Turbocam’s mission statement, the company “exists as a business for the purpose of honoring God, creating wealth for its employees, and supporting Christian service to God and people.”
“Turbocam sees Lillian and all employees as created in God’s image and is providing as much support as possible consistent with its Mission, faith and the law,” said Jordan Pratt, senior counsel at First Liberty Institute, a Christian legal group representing Turbocam.
The family-owned business began in the 1980s, has locations in Europe and Asia, and employs more than 900 engineers, machinists, technicians, and support staff.
Pratt said that Bernier and all other company employees “have the option of taking a substantial cash bonus that they can use to choose any health insurance or medical services they desire.”
“This should resolve the issue,” Pratt said.
Bernier’s lawyer, Erchull, said the so-called bonus Pratt referred to is insufficient to purchase other coverage.
“A company like Turbocam does not have a legally protected right to provide lesser benefits to transgender employees simply because of the owner’s religious belief,” Erchull said.
Turbocam is “trying to declare itself separate from the law in order to deny equal treatment to one of its employees just because she is a transgender woman,” Erchull said.
Health Plans Inc. responded in a statement: “While we understand and empathize with the issues raised by GLAD, this employee is not insured by Health Plans Inc.” The company explained that it processes health benefit claims for employers, and that Turbocam has control over its health plan design and benefits.
According to Bernier’s complaint, the health plan says no benefits shall be paid for “gender dysphoria treatment, including but not limited to, counseling, gender reassignment surgery or hormone therapy, and related preoperative and postoperative procedures, which, as their objective, change the person’s sex and any related complications.”
The New Hampshire Human Rights Commission has the power to receive, investigate, and make findings on complaints of illegal discrimination and to hold public hearings. Depending on how the commission’s investigation proceeds, the matter could also be filed as a lawsuit in state or federal court.
Information from the Associated Press was included in this report.
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