ACLU sues Children’s Hospital on behalf of an 18-year-old seeking gender-affirming surgery

Children's Hospital Colorado
Hart Van Denburg/CPR News
Children’s Hospital Colorado at the CU Anschutz Medical Campus in Aurora, Aug. 30, 2019.

The ACLU of Colorado filed a lawsuit Wednesday against Children’s Hospital Colorado on behalf of an 18-year-old transgender patient awaiting a gender-affirming surgery, who was abruptly told the hospital wouldn’t perform it.

The plaintiff, Caden Kent (a pseudonym the ACLU said is being used to protect his privacy) had just gotten authorization from his insurance company in the summer of 2023 to go ahead with the surgery at Children’s, one of only three institutions in the state that provides medically necessary surgeries to treat gender dysphoria and accepted insurance for the procedures. Caden was assigned female at birth, but he has a male gender identity.

Then the hospital did an about-face and refused to move forward, the suit alleges.

Tim Macdonald, the Legal Director of the ACLU of Colorado, said a provider from the hospital "Reached out and said, essentially, ‘I am so terribly sorry, we won't do it. You're going to have to go somewhere else and figure out a plan on your own.'”

"And that person had no explanation, no transition plan from the hospital," said Macdonald.

A spokesperson for the hospital didn’t comment on the suit, saying it had not been served with any such litigation. The ACLU posted the complaint on its website.

The hospital is the location of the TRUE Center for Gender Diversity. According to its website, it's “the only comprehensive care center in the Rocky Mountain region,” specifically established to care for transgender children, adolescents, and young adults.

Macdonald said he’s not sure why the hospital reversed course. The complaint said Children’s violated the Colorado Anti-Discrimination Act by denying Kent full and equal access to care on the basis of sex, gender identity, gender expression, and disability.

There are modest penalties for those who violate the statute, said Macdonald.

“What the client really wants is for the hospital to comply with the anti-discrimination laws in the state of Colorado," he said. “We're asking for an injunction and a declaration that the hospital comply with the law.”

Battles over gender-affirming care have become increasingly contentious in recent years, with families coming to Colorado for health care. Statehouses across the nation in 2023 took up hundreds of bills targeting lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and queer people, a record number according to an ACLU tally.

“It was devastating on Caden and his family," Macdonald said in an interview. “And there's a reason, there's lots of research that explains why these types of surgeries are lifesaving for lots of people who are suffering from gender dysphoria.”

Macdonald said he was aware of similar suits in a few other states.

“We think this will be a landmark case and establish a really important principle that a business like this cannot discriminate on the basis of transgender status in this fashion,” said Macdonald.

In the summer of 2023, The Denver Post reported the hospital was no longer performing chest reconstruction on patients who are transgender. At the time, a hospital representative said it never did the surgery for patients older than 18, had ceased offering it to young adults, and was referring patients looking to get the surgery to other hospitals.

Macdonald said he didn’t know what prompted the change or if the administration had been pressured.

“They did not give that as a reason why they were stopping the surgery, so they haven't made that assertion that they were getting pressure,” he said, noting as part of the suit, the group would seek “the documents and peek behind the curtain to see what really drove the discriminatory actions.”

The complaint alleges Children’s violated state anti-discrimination laws when it stopped providing medically necessary surgeries to transgender patients over the age of 18 without warning, notice, or a plan to ensure continuity of care.

For many transgender people, gender-affirming surgical care is medically necessary and can be life-saving, the ACLU said, noting that evidence-based care for gender dysphoria can alleviate most serious symptoms, like severe emotional distress and suicidal ideation.

According to the complaint, Children’s Hospital Colorado policy doesn’t ban patients seeking the same procedures for reasons other than treatment of gender dysphoria.

Kent started getting care at 16 at Children’s Hospital’s TRUE Center in 2021 and was diagnosed with gender dysphoria the next year. His life improved tremendously with treatment, according to suit. Later, he started discussing with his care team seeking gender-affirming surgery once he became 18.

Providers at Children’s found Kent was an appropriate candidate for surgery and such treatment was medically necessary, after eight months of consultation and assessment, the lawsuit said.

He was set to be scheduled for the procedure. But the same day he provided an insurance authorization letter, the final step before his surgery could be scheduled — a physician’s assistant told him that under a new hospital policy, effective immediately, the procedure couldn’t go ahead.

“Caden came forward to protect other transgender people from the discrimination he experienced,” said Emma Mclean-Riggs, ACLU of Colorado staff attorney, in a press release. “Transgender people have the right to access necessary medical care, without fear that they may be denied that care because of who they are. Medical providers should ensure their policies and practices are non-discriminatory or prepare to be held accountable in court.”

The advocacy group One Colorado said it supported the suit.

“Everyone deserves access to essential medical care, free from discrimination,” said Nadine Bridges, executive director of One Colorado.