By Mark Hanna 31/08/2017 3


Access to gender affirmation surgery in New Zealand is abysmal, with waiting lists that are decades long. I’ve asked our major political parties what they will do about it if elected.

On the 27th of July, I sent emails to four political parties outlining the issue of access to gender affirmation surgery*. I contacted the healthcare spokespersons for the Green, Labour, and National parties, and the co-leaders of the Māori party since I couldn’t find any health spokesperson for them. They each received a version of this email:

Tēnā koe,

Since the US president Donald Trump announced this morning that transgender Americans would not be allowed to join the US military, saying that their healthcare is too expensive[1], I have been reminded of a similar issue that we face here in New Zealand.

For many transgender people, gender affirmation surgery is potentially life-saving. Transgender people are a minority population in New Zealand who are at higher risk of depression and suicide[2]. It’s important that their needs are not forgotten.

I’m writing to you as the spokesperson for health for the XXXX Party, because this matter is something I want to be sure is addressed in the coming election. It is something I will be considering carefully before choosing which party will receive my party vote.

Currently, gender affirmation surgeries are funded out of the Ministry of Health’s special high cost treatment pool, at an intended rate of one “female to male” surgery and three “male to female” surgeries every two years[3]. However, since New Zealand’s only surgeon who could perform these surgeries retired in 2014[4] the surgeries appear to have stopped.

In response to a request made by Jennifer Shields, the Ministry of Health revealed in May this year that:

“There are currently 71 people waiting for male to female gender reassignment surgery and 19 people waiting for female to male surgery.”[5]

They also noted in their response that:

“There are no plans to increase the rate of surgery. A mathematical calculation suggests that the 71st person on the male to female waiting list will be operated on in around 47 years if the rate remains the same. Similarly, the 19th person on the female to male waiting list will be operated on in 38 years.”[5]

Currently, this situation is fairly untenable. Transgender people seeking gender affirmation surgery are left to pay out of their own pocket to travel overseas for surgery, or wait for decades in the hope that the government might eventually get around to them. It should frankly be cause for international embarrassment.

Which is why I’d like to ask you how the XXXX Party would address the health issues faced by transgender New Zealanders if you are voted into government in September.

I also know many other people who consider this an important issue and would like to know your answer. It would be great if the XXXX Party’s plan on this issue could be released publicly. In any case, I intend to share the response I receive with others who care about this.

Ngā mihi nui,
Mark Hanna

[1] https://www.nytimes.com/2017/07/26/us/politics/trump-transgender-military.html
[2] http://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S1054139X13007532
[3] http://www.health.govt.nz/system/files/documents/publications/gender-reassignment-health-services-for-trans-people-in-nz-v3oct14.pdf
[4] http://www.radionz.co.nz/national/programmes/morningreport/audio/20148752/plastic-surgeon’s-retirement-leaves-sex-change-surgery-in-limbo
[5] https://twitter.com/jenkshields/status/867126476675481600

Later, after watching the Rainbow Wellington Election Forum video on Facebook, I also sent the email to Damian Light, the diversity spokesperson of the United Future Party. During the forum, he had mentioned something I hadn’t heard before about this issue:

I stand to be corrected on this if I’m wrong, but I understand that the waiting list [for GRS] could be cleared for as little as five million dollars by using overseas [surgeons]

So as well as asking for his response to the original email, I asked if he was able to point to his source for that statement, since I hadn’t been able to find one.

Though to put that number in a bit of context, ACC spent $8.6 million on acupuncture for lumbar sprain in 2014/15. This is despite their most recent review on acupuncture for musculoskeletal pain in 2011 finding that the evidence in this area was “inconclusive”.

Getting any response from some parties has unfortunately been like getting blood from a stone, and not all have responded by the time this article was published. If I receive more responses in the future, I will update the article to include them.

Here are the responses I have received so far. You can click the links below to jump to a particular party’s response:


Green Party

My email to the Green Party was sent to Julie-Anne Genter, as their spokesperson for health, but it was forwarded to Jan Logie’s office as it’s an issue she’s worked on.

Kia ora Mark,

Apologies for the delay, and thanks so much for your email. Julie Anne’s office passed this to Jan Logie’s office because Jan has been working very hard on issues of healthcare for trans people, but I’m cc-ing in Julie Anne’s EA Stuart as Julie also wants to stay connected to these issues.

Jan and the Green Party agrees with you about the huge, life-saving importance of gender reassignment surgery and that the waiting list is utterly unacceptable.

The Green Party agrees with the recommendations made by a coalition of groups to the panel of MPs on the International Day against Homophobia, Biphobia and Transphobia on May 17th this year, which were the following:

  • Require district health boards to ensure trans and gender diverse people’s access to gender affirming health services available in NZ, based on an informed consent model of healthcare
  • Provide sufficient funding to enable timely access to gender reassignment surgeries not provided through the NZ public health system
  • Support the development of training and resources on an informed consent model of healthcare for trans and gender diverse people, and provide information and resources for communities and individuals about accessing gender affirming services.

We also note that the aim should be to create a New Zealand based national surgical service for gender reassignment surgery, and to ensure that we have this specialist knowledge in New Zealand (as well as the interim measure of funding being available for people to travel for the surgery).

You might be interested to read the Green Party minority report on the select committee report on a petition around trans health care from 2015: https://www.parliament.nz/resource/en-NZ/51DBSCH_SCR69574_1/1911770f0cb53490fadba8dbcfb09d7c24955763

Jan is really passionate about this issue and will continue to work to advocate to ensure transgender and gender nonconforming people get access to the healthcare they need.

Please feel free to get in touch with any further questions.

Kind regards

Jessie Dennis, Senior Executive Assistant to Jan Logie MP

I also sent a follow-up question about what “timely access” means more precisely, after Jennifer Shields raised the question on Twitter:

Hi Mark,

I talked with Jan about this. As far as numbers, just like any urgently needed surgery, the ideal wait time is none at all. Of course, while that might not always be realistic, we’d work to get it as close to that as possible.

Many Thanks

Jessie Dennis, Senior Executive Assistant to Jan Logie MP

The Green Party also has a Sexual Orientation and Identity Policy.

At the time I wrote this section, that policy was last updated in 2014 and does not mention the issue of access to gender affirmation surgery. However I believe some updates are being worked on so there may now be a more recent version.

 


Labour Party

I’ve yet to hear back from Labour. Originally I contacted their health spokesperson Dr David Clark, but after seeing Grant Robertson speak on the topic at the Rainbow Wellington Election Forum I forwarded the email to him on the 23rd of August. I’ve had an acknowledgement from his EA, but no response yet.

While waiting for my response, an article was published in the New Zealand Herald that gave some detail around Labour leader Jacinda Ardern’s response to a question from a student about access to gender affirmation surgery:

One of the students asked Ardern what Labour’s stance was on helping more people have sex reassignment surgery, and providing other support.

The Labour leader agreed greater support was needed, at which point [Annette] King added that one problem was a lack of specialist surgeons in New Zealand, and more training was needed.

“I also was married to a transgender person,” King said.

“So I understand very much the issues for transgender people, and the need to have access to surgery and to counselling and drugs and support. We are very supportive of that in our policy.”

NZ Herald

Labour has a Rainbow policy, which has this to say on access to gender affirmation surgery and other healthcare for trans New Zealanders:

Labour will:

  • improve access to affordable primary care based on the informed consent model, particularly for younger, trans, and intersex New Zealanders. This also includes training and resources for health professionals about sexual orientation and gender diversity
  • support and ensure all district health boards reduce barriers for trans and gender diverse people to access gender affirming healthcare, transition related medical support (including hormones, social support and other cosmetic interventions), and an assessment of the need for gender reassignment surgery as an elective service
  • ensure fair access to publicly funded gender affirming surgical options for trans and gender diverse people based on need.

Also, the minority view on a petition on this topic noted in Jan Logie’s response from the Green Party was apparently from both the Green and Labour parties (it’s written from the perspective of the Green Party but in the heading it notes it’s also the view of the Labour Party): https://www.parliament.nz/resource/en-NZ/51DBSCH_SCR69574_1/1911770f0cb53490fadba8dbcfb09d7c24955763


Māori Party

I contacted Māori Party co-leaders Marama Fox and Te Ururoa Flavell, and received this response from Marama Fox:

Tēnā koe Mark

Thank you for your letter to me regarding the health issues faced by New Zealand’s transgender community. I appreciate you writing to me and I apologise for the delay in responding.

Regarding the concerns you note about the availability of gender affirmation surgery, I too share your concerns as this leaves many of our whanaunga in an untenable position. As such I have referred your email to the Minister of Health, Hon Dr Jonathan Coleman for his response.

Mark, the Māori Party has not developed a specific transgender policy or a wider LGBT policy for the 2017 General Election. However I note that as a Party born of the dreams and aspirations of tangata whenua, a large proportion of whom identify with the LGTB and transgender communities, the Māori Party seeks to engage with all whānau to enable them meet their aspirations whatever they may be, as well as address any problems that they may be experiencing. To this end we welcome organisations and individuals that wish to engage with our party so that we may better support the transgender and LGBT communities.

Thank you again for writing to me and again I apologise for the delay in responding from you. I look forward to hearing from you in the future.

Nāku noa, nā

Marama Fox
Co-leader of the Māori Party and List MP for Ikaroa-Rāwhiti

I received this response as a PDF and wasn’t able to copy/paste text from it, so typed it out by hand. Please assume any mistakes in the above text are mine.


National Party

I contacted Health Minister Dr Jonathon Coleman about this. I was told he had asked Ministry of Health officials to advise him on the topic before he responded, and though I haven’t received his response yet I was told on the 28th of August that I should have it within “the next week or so”.

If the National Party has an LGBT-specific policy, I haven’t been able to find it.


United Future Party

I emailed Damian Light, as the United Future Party’s spokesperson for diversity, after seeing him speak at the Rainbow Wellington Election Forum. As well as sending him a version of the same email other parties received, I asked him if he would be able to send me the source for a statement he made during the forum:

I stand to be corrected on this if I’m wrong, but I understand that the waiting list [for GRS] could be cleared for as little as five million dollars by using overseas [surgeons]

Damian Light

He was quick to respond with a link to the United Future Party’s LGBT policy:

Thanks Mark,

As spokesperson for diversity I had the pleasure of launching our policy on 8 August (31 year anniversary of the homosexual law reform coming into effect).

We’ve published it on our website under policies (http://unitedfuture.org.nz/lgbt/) but here are the key points around healthcare;

  • Ensure health providers have appropriate plans, practice standards and funding to responsiveness to the health needs of rainbow communities.
  • Ensure trans and gender diverse people’s access to gender affirming health services based on an informed consent model of healthcare. Where not available in New Zealand, provide sufficient funding to enable timely access.

The $5m detail came from an article online but I can’t find it right now (away from my Pc with all my files used to create our policies).

I’ll try track it down and send it through.

Kind regards,

Damian Light
Party Leader + Candidate for Botany
Spokesperson for Auckland Issues and Diversity

I haven’t yet heard back around the $5m statement, but will update here when I have. If anyone else knows where this number might have come from, it would be great if you could share a link in the comments or email me about it.


I should also mention that Claire Black has published an article about various parties’ approaches to trans rights as part of Andrew Chen’s A Policy A Day series. Claire looked at the issues of trans healthcare in New Zealand and amending the Human Rights Act to explicitly outlaw discrimination on the basis of gender identity. She also included more of the minor political parties that I haven’t contacted. You can find her article here: A Policy A Day: Trans Rights

* Often referred to as “gender reassignment surgery” or GRS, I prefer not to use this term because of its false implication that someone’s gender can be changed through surgery. Alternatives include “gender confirmation surgery” and “gender affirmation surgery”. I prefer the latter because I think it carries less of an implication that it is somehow necessary for trans people to have surgery in order to “confirm” their gender.


3 Responses to “NZ political parties’ transgender health plans”

  • While it is important to talk about lower surgery. Trans people most basic healthcare need aren’t neing meet. MoH has zero policy around hormones, DHB view top surgery as cosmetic and many GPs dont know that basics around trans people. Rather than focusing on surgery can the media talk about trans healthcare as something complex and going. The way that It comes across is as trans people need ‘the surgery’ in order to be trans enough and feeds into the dialogue that tranistioning comes down to surgery when it is much more complex than that. Please medical tranistion is a long process and not the same for everyone and I’m so tired of fighting for my bois to get even get a consult to start hormones.

    • You’re absolutely right that lower surgery is not the only relevant health issue, and I don’t want to add weight to the misconception that it is or should be the focal point or even a necessary part of transitioning for everyone. Sorry if I didn’t make that clear enough in the article.

      I decided to use this as the issue to focus my questions on because of the clearly unacceptable position of NZ’s decades-long waiting lists for it.

  • Also gender afirming surgery is not just lower surgery and DHBs and capabile and some do provide hystos and top surgery for ftms