Close-up of stethoscope and folder on background of doctors at work

A proposal for the Town of Gilbert to include sex-change surgery in its employee insurance coverage last week fell short of the votes needed to pass.

The town is self-insured and is not required to include coverage for this procedure but was looking to add it in order to be competitive with hiring.

“I’m not supportive of the expansion of benefits to include gender-affirming surgery,” said Councilwoman Aimee Yentes, who pulled the item off the consent agenda for discussion. 

“I think those are policies that deviate from other positions we’ve taken as a community that delve more into social policy rather than strictly providing medical necessary benefits to our employees,” Yentes said.

Deputy Chief People Officer Kristen Drew said plan changes occur every year. 

For example, for the 2019-20 fiscal year, the town added autism spectrum disorder to its benefits coverage and this fiscal year expanded acupuncture, chiropractic and orthotics coverage and added domestic partner coverage, according to Drew.

“Whenever we make plan designs there’s a valuation criteria that is considered,” she said. “Sometimes it is a legal requirement and other times it’s industry standard. We always want to be competitive with the market.”

Councilman Scott September agreed with Yentes, stating, “This issue as far as taxpayers paying for this item, it’s contrary to what we’ve typically done as a town to avoid these more social policy issues.”

Councilman Laurin Hendrix asked Drew how many employees refused a job offer because the town didn’t offer gender-affirming surgery. Drew responded she was unaware of anyone turning down a job offer for that reason.

Hendrix said the argument presented to Council is that Gilbert is trying to compete with peer organizations.

“We’re just thinking that theoretically there might be a person some day that would only want to work for Gilbert if these procedures (are offered),” he said. “We’re thinking that some day there might be somebody that wanted this treatment.”

 Drew said typically when applicants ask about the town’s benefits, “we’re able to say we’re comparable to Chandler, Mesa, Tempe (and) Phoenix.”

“It typically doesn’t come down to a specific benefit like that,” Drew said. “We look at the whole and we try to align with what is standard in the market, not just based on one particular benefit.”

Drew added if the benefit was not included, the town would have to disclose that to everybody who applied for a job and hope that it wouldn’t cause them to say, “I don’t want to take that job because that’s a key thing to me working there.”

Mayor Brigette Peterson said she knows it’s hard to figure if this benefit would be requested in the future.

 “We have employees with all kinds of backgrounds that work for us here at the Town of Gilbert,” she said. “And I know that it’s important for us as an organization to try and be in the forefront when it comes to offering benefits to our employees or future employees to keep us competitive within the marketplace.”

“There are times that we need to make the tough decisions that may not always align with our own thought process when it comes to our personal choices or our religious choices,” she said.

 Peterson said adding the coverage would put the town in a position to handle whatever the future may hold.

She said other organizations and businesses, including the one her husband works for, include coverage for sex-change  surgery.

“I’m going to encourage our council members to be open-minded in this benefit and look to this community moving forward where we can be strong and handle situations like this,” Peterson said.

Council voted to split the request for the gender-assignment surgery from a request to raise insurance premiums 3 percent. It unanimously approved the premium increase but rejected including the surgery as a covered benefit.

Those who voted against the benefit included Yentes, Hendrix, September and Scott Anderson. Peterson, Koprowski and Councilwoman Kathy Tilque voted to approve the coverage.

Meanwhile, Council also gave direction to staff on its latest allotment of federal pandemic relief funds of $24 million. 

Tilque said she would like for staff to get more information what it would cost to build a family advocacy center. 

She also wanted to see about using the money to repay the Police Department’s $856,409 cost of providing enforcement during the summer protests last year and possibly look at the cost of utilities the town had to write off because of the pandemic.

Peterson said she would like to see the advocacy center funded from that allotment rather than from a bond planned for this November. 

Vice Mayor Yung Koprowski said she also would support funding a police crime lab with the federal funds.