Indiana hospital refuses to treat transgender woman

by Joseph Erbentraut

EDGE Media Network Contributor

Thursday August 12, 2010

When Erin Vaught went to Ball Memorial Hospital in Muncie, Ind., last month, she was coughing up blood and seeking treatment for a lung condition. After reportedly facing ridicule and transphobic remarks-"he-she," "transvestite" and "it"-staff eventually refused to treat her after she waited two hours.

Activists both in the Hoosier State and across the country were not about to let Vaught's experience go unnoticed. After the Bilerico Project, Change.org and other media outlets broke the story, Ball Memorial received some 2,000 e-mails. And the response caused hospital president Mike Haley to issue a strong statement indicating the facility will begin to work with area-LGBT groups to improve its policies.

"Ball Memorial Hospital is engaging with Indiana Equality [and] Indiana Transgender Rights Advocacy Alliance to assist with review of [our] care policies, employee benefits, and diversity training," wrote Haley. "[We are] committed to providing preeminent health care services for all our patients, and to continue [our] tradition of treating all patients and families with dignity and respect."

Both Vivian Benge, president of INTRAA, and Doug Whitinger of Indiana Equality were impressed with the swift action the hospital, which is part of Clarian Health, the largest health care provider in the state, took. At press time, the groups and hospital administration were already set to begin their conversation about new, LGBT-inclusive policies in a meeting on Wednesday, Aug. 11, a little over two weeks after the story original broke.

"The hospital is being very forthcoming and there's been really great progress made already. This is a major step forward," Benge told EDGE. "I'm hopeful we can turn this into something that can help the whole community."

Whitinger added he was proud Vaught had the courage to step forward and approach both groups after she said Ball Memorial staff refused to treat her.

"Erin has really brought the issue to light that there are areas of the state and country where people are experiencing this discrimination," said Whitinger. "And it's happening in locations close to people here, not far away in some intangible place. I think that's motivating people to act."

According to data Lambda Legal released earlier this year, incidents such as the one that took place at Ball Memorial are far too common-particularly for trans people. In its survey of more than 5,000 respondents, Lambda Legal found 70 percent of trans or gender non-conforming people had experienced discrimination in health care settings-ranging from harsh or abusive language to denial of care due to their gender identity, compared to 56 percent of LGB people who suffered mistreatment due to their sexual orientation. A higher proportion of low-income respondents or those who identified themselves as people of color reported similar discrimination.

Further, more than half of trans or gender non-conforming respondents were generally concerned of being mistreated or refused health care. And more than 90 percent of trans respondents believed there are not enough medical personnel who are properly trained to care for them.

Michael Silverman, executive director of the Transgender Legal Defense and Education Fund, said Vaught's story is an all-too-common experience that carries dire consequences. These include trans individuals pursuing self-care or avoiding routine health care altogether.

"The health care system simply has not progressed to meet the concerns of the transgender community and it shows up in ugly incidents like what happened to Erin," said Silverman. "Transgender people have largely checked out of the mainstream health care system, which often results in some really bad health outcomes."

Hector Vargas, executive director of the Gay and Lesbian Medical Association, a group that works to combat homophobia within the medical profession and promote quality health care for LGBT people, offered further insight.

"When an individual LGBT person doesn't feel like the health care professionals are welcoming or inclusive of their particular needs, that individual's actual health is put at risk," he said. "Good health is one of the most important things a person can have and that's at risk if we don't address this sort of discrimination in the health care setting in a global way."

A global fix-up of health care providers' treatment of LGBT patients will prove a large undertaking. According to the latest Healthcare Equality Index, created by the Human Rights Campaign in conjunction with GLMA, only 58 percent of the nation's 200 largest hospitals had non-discrimination policies in place for patients' sexual orientation.

When it comes to gender identity and expression, this number shrinks to only seven percent.

While Ball Memorial and other facilities may have good intentions to improve their services for LGB and specifically trans patients, efforts to enact patient-specific non-discrimination policies and create LGBT cultural competency training sessions for hospital staff often come with a price tag. Some financially-strapped providers may be hesitant to take on the additional cost of overhauling databases previously geared to only two gender options, as one example.

Despite the work that lays ahead in countering what he describes as a "failure of the system to address the needs of transgender people," Silverman emphasized progress is a two-way street requiring heightened advocacy similar to the way Indiana activists responded to the Ball Memorial controversy.

"We have to be willing to step up and say this is what we need and these are the barriers we face in our community and see how the system can work for us," he said. "We have to be prepared to partner with health care providers to ensure equal access to care."

Joseph covers news, arts and entertainment and lives in Chicago. He is the assistant Chicago editor for The Huffington Post. Log on to www.joe-erbentraut.com to read more of his work.

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