Is OPM Requiring Coverage for Transition-Related Care under FEHB in Plan Year 2016?

UPDATE:  Reporting by BuzzFeed News indicates that OPM has decided to wait and see what insurance plans propose before deciding whether or not to permit plans to maintain the general exclusion.  Mara Keisling of the National Center for Transgender Equality responded:

“It’s not OK for an employer to say to insurance companies, ‘We don’t care if you discriminate against our employees,’” Keisling told BuzzFeed News. “It is just straight-up discrimination, and they can fix it any time they want.”

On March 13, 2015, the U.S. Office of Personnel Management (OPM) Healthcare and Insurance Division issued Federal Employee Health Benefits (FEHB) Program Carrier Letter No. 2015-02, its “annual call for benefit and rate proposals from FEHB Program carriers.”  The letter establishes what OPM expects for FEHB Program participants in contracting with the Federal government to provide health insurance to Federal employees.  In the call letter, OPM states:

OPM strongly encourages plans to reassess their benefit offerings as the needs of our population evolve.  In recent years, FEHB has welcomed young adults up to the age of 26 and same sex spouses as covered family members.  To further ensure that members can access appropriate care, we provide the following guidance:

Transgender Services – In June 2014, OPM recognized the evolving professional consensus that treatment may be medically necessary for gender dysphoria, and removed the FEHB requirement to exclude services, drugs, or supplies directly related to transition. Due to the short timeframe for network development and benefit design, OPM permitted plans to retain the general exclusion of these services for the 2015 plan year. For 2016, plans may propose services for members with gender dysphoria as they do for all other medical conditions. Plans offering surgical services must include details of preauthorization or case management requirements to facilitate referrals to qualified providers of this specialized care.

Emphasis added.  Given the context of a call letter (essentially a request for contract proposals from Federal contractors), this language may mean that OPM will no longer accept contract proposals which categorically “services, drugs, or supplies related to sex transformation,” as it accepted in years past.  This interpretation is bolstered by the publication on March 17, 2015 of FEHB Program Carrier Letter No. 2015-03(a), “2016 Technical Guidance and Instructions for Preparing HMO Benefit and Service Area Proposals.”  Again related to expanding access to care in the section labeled “Call Letter Initiatives,” the guidance states:

Transgender Services:  Beginning with 2016 brochures, Plans should describe their covered benefits for gender transition along with any excluded services, and list any applicable prior authorization requirements or age limits.

While this is weaker than the commanding language usually used in Federal regulations, it is important to remember the context that OPM is technically soliciting contracts rather than writing rules, and thus does not need to use command words such as “shall” in place of “should.”  Update: in response to questions, the use of “along with any excluded services” does not necessarily imply that categorical exclusions are still permitted; it could reference exclusions such as excluding all self-injectable medication.

Given the above, it’s worth asking:  what is OPM’s policy on exclusions for transition-related care in plan year 2016?  When I reached out for comment from OPM’s Office of Diversity and Inclusion, I received an immediate response from the Director, Veronica Villalobos, indicating they were looking into my inquiry.