2 min

Smitherman undecided on sex surgery

Gay health minister gets his feet wet

George Smitherman, Ontario’s new Minister Of Health And Long-term Care and Ontario’s first openly gay cabinet minister, is non-committal on whether he will reinstate OHIP coverage of sex reassignment surgery (SRS) for transsexuals.

“I can’t really talk about it until I’ve looked at it more,” says Smitherman.

The rookie minister admits that it’s a significant issue, though it’s unlikely it would cost the government more than a few hundred thousand dollars annually.

“Gender reassignment surgeries are one important part on the LGBT [lesbian, gay, bisexual and trans] healthcare agenda. I’m working on learning more on that issue and a multitude of others. After all, I’ve only had the job for a few weeks,” says Smitherman.

Between 1970 and 1998, OHIP covered the cost of SRS. But in 1998 then-premier Mike Harris de-listed the procedure, forcing transsexuals to pay for it out of their own pockets at a cost of between $15,000 and $25,000. With this fall’s Liberal victory in Ontario, many trans activists are hoping the government will be more sympathetic.

“The environment is very positive right now for reinstating surgery,” says Susan Gapka, who is part of a trans health lobby group and is on the board of Egale Canada. “We’re trying to hold a meeting with the minister in the new year.”

Four transsexuals are now before the Ontario Human Rights Commission arguing that the Harris decision violates their human rights. The case will be bogged down in hearings until March unless the Liberals make a move. Manitoba, Saskatchewan, Alberta and Newfoundland-Labrador pay for SRS surgery.

“The government does give direction in human rights cases,” says Gapka. “They might hold off until they hear what the tribunal says.”

In a Nov 5 speech to the Ontario Hospital Association, Smitherman did acknowledge a need for an inclusive system, founded on “the vision of one quality healthcare system for all, regardless of age, income, ethnicity or where one happens to live.”

But Smitherman admits he’s just getting his feet wet in the portfolio, which is the priciest in the province – the budget’s now $28-billion.

“Here’s the deal – I’m a values-laden politician,” Smitherman says. “One thing that I’ve repeated is that healthcare is the best expression of Canadian values. I see good elements and certain inadequacies. I have a big passion for and commitment to healthcare and I intend to ask everyone in the system how to plan a more integrated, seamless system.”

Smitherman says his appointment came out of the blue.

“I had no clue I was going to get this ministry. I was shocked and excited when I got the news but I felt that my work over the summer on auto insurance reform – that has a big impact on healthcare – was one of the reasons the premier gave me the job.”

A hands-on MPP with a reputation for being accessible to his constituents, Smitherman is a familiar figure in the economically-challenged Regent Park area of his Toronto Centre-Rosedale riding, helping to develop a variety of projects. And, with strong support in the lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgendered community, Smitherman will, without question, be held accountable by LGBT folks around key issues. He attended last month’s funding announcement for the Sherbourne Health Centre.

“Sherbourne will be a test case for how an integrated system can work,” says Smitherman.