Between the Motions: Trans, non-binary students advocate for gender-affirming care at AMS Council

Supporters lined the back of the Michael Kingsmill Forum calling for more support from AMS President Eshana Bhangu on including expanded gender-affirming care in a AMS/GSS Health & Dental referendum.

The AMS has been considering a referendum item for the upcoming 2023 AMS Elections in March to increase the student fee for its Health & Dental Plan to address the plan’s high cost for the student society while maintaining the same level of coverage for students.

In recent years, the AMS has had to draw funds from the Health & Dental Plan reserve to cover the difference between the $277.50 students pay and the cost of the growing number of student claims. Students claimed $6.96 million last year, compared to $4.32 million in 2020/21.

According to a leader of the Trans Coalition who spoke at the meeting as a student-at-large, both the Collective and the recently-formed Trans Coalition had been meeting with Bhangu, VP Finance Lawrence Liu and representatives from Pacific Blue Cross and Studentcare since August about including an expansion of gender-affirming care to this same referendum item.

Trans people have noted “an astronomical gap” in access to health care between cisgender and Trans and non-binary people in Canada. According to a 2021 report from TransPULSE, a national community-based survey on Trans and non-binary health care, only 47 per cent of surveyed non-binary people said they were comfortable discussing their health concerns with a primary care provider.

Members of the Pride Collective founded the Trans Coalition to advocate for better and improved access to gender-affirming care at UBC — something that Trans and non-binary students say has been lacking.

The Trans Coalition leader said the Coalition was preparing to release a statement on Wednesday outlining its work with the AMS. But Bhangu emailed Coalition members two hours before Council that the AMS needed to rescind its support to include gender-affirming care in this year’s referendum.

In her email to the Coalition, Bhangu said the AMS will not be able to financially support the Health & Dental Plan “at the current rate” and that the student society “is not in a position” to make any additions to the plan.

“This is a matter of feasibility and not willingness,” she wrote, adding that the AMS was in discussions with Studentcare and Pacific Blue Cross to add gender-affirming care in a future referendum cycle.

The Trans Coalition leader stressed that this care is urgently needed in their remarks.

“You can’t put a price on Trans lives,” they said. “Trans people die because they can’t get access to this care.”

Bhangu echoed the sentiments in her email during the meeting, saying that the AMS could not afford to support the expanded care since the Health & Dental Plan is facing a large deficit.

The Trans Coalition leader said Bhangu has repeatedly dodged the Coalition’s emails and dropped out of meetings.

“The AMS president doesn’t get to go back,” they said. “She doesn’t get to back down on her commitment to the student body.”

Bhangu did not comment on the emails, but said she has attended every meeting that she could, adding that this issue falls under the VP finance portfolio.

Many councillors expressed support for adding gender-affirming care to a referendum question on increasing the Health & Dental Plan fee following a presentation on the plan’s financial state.

During the presentation, Studentcare representative Sophia Haque noted that much of the driving costs to the plan were the high number of mental health claims.

Councillor Maddie Elder asked if adding gender-affirming care to the plan could also address the mental health crisis by taking aim at one of its upstream causes.

Haque that this would help, but the financial impacts might not be seen immediately.

When pressed by members of the Trans Coalition to say whether they would be included in future conversations on this issue, Bhangu seemed to misunderstand the question. Instead, she again said she cannot “in good conscience” commit to supporting this expanded care, expressing concerns it could be revoked by next year’s executive.

“I’m not comfortable without due diligence … to make a commitment on behalf of the organization,” she said.

Another member of the Trans Coalition, said the group would continue to fight for this care regardless of AMS support.

“Our priority as a community is to pass [this referendum item] this year,” he said. “And if it comes up again next year and people are considering [it] … our communities will be able to rally.”

According to Bhangu, the Health & Dental Plan Committee will meet in the next two weeks to finalize the referendum questions language, including whether to add gender affirming care to the item. She also said in her email and at the meeting that the AMS is still open to having more conversations with the Trans Coalition.

This article was updated at 5:25 p.m. on March 15, 2023 to remove the names of members of the Trans Coalition to protect their safety.