By Doug Oakley
Bay Area News Group East Bay
Berkeley is considering a plan to set aside $20,000 a year for city employees who want to have a sex change operation.
The City Council will vote on the plan next month.
Formal consideration comes three and a half years after the City Council asked city staff to study the idea and return with a plan in six months. That was in May of 2007.
After discovering that it would be too expensive to include the surgery in its Kaiser or Health Net plans, the city decided to cover it out of its own pocket, wagering that not many employees will want sex change surgery.
City Councilman Kriss Worthington, who supports the plan, said the operations can cost between $7,000 and $60,000.
The new plan was conceived in 2007 by city employee Lynn Riordan, who on May 1, 2003, paid $11,000 out of her own pocket to have the surgery done in Canada. Riordan made the transition from man to woman.
"It's great they are moving forward with it," Riordan, who is a clerk in the finance department, said Tuesday. "It's really all about removing restrictions on transgender medical coverage. It's a birth defect. People are born with (the wrong gender) and they don't go out and have the surgery for entertainment. Nowadays it's not acceptable to give some people medical coverage but deny it to others."
Riordan said the surgery she had was a life saver. "If you had the wrong junk down there, it would drive you crazy, every day, every moment," she said.
But Berkeley resident Isabelle Gaston said she is insulted that the city would spend $20,000 more on employee benefits when it already has an un-funded liability of about $300 million for employee benefits that taxpayers will likely be paying in coming years. The City Council talked about that in a public workshop just before Tuesday's regular City Council meeting.
"It's not fiscally responsible," Gaston said. "There have been a lot of decisions in the last year made by the City Council that have been pretty dire for a lot of people living in the city, the closing of Willard Pool chief among them. I find it surreal that they are meeting to discuss $300 million in un-funded employee benefits liabilities, then an hour and a half later they are voting to expand employee benefits by $20,000 each year."
Worthington said he already received calls from other residents opposed to the plan.
"The whole purpose of doing a policy like this is having equality," Worthington said. "Shouldn't we have a policy like there is in San Francisco where it's included in health coverage? Some day this will be a standard medical thing."
Worthington said the $20,000 is "not giving away the store" because very few people will take advantage of it.
"It is a serious health need for a very limited number of people," Worthington said. "It's not like you're bored and you just decide to go and have surgery."
A report to the City Council said Health Net would charge $15,400 in premiums to include the surgery in its plan whether anyone took advantage of it or not.