Pax Enstad and his mother, Cheryl, are suing PeaceHealth on grounds of sex and gender identity-based discrimination.
Pax Enstad and his mother, Cheryl, are suing PeaceHealth on grounds of sex and gender identity-based discrimination. ASK

Sponsored
The Stranger has last-minute discounts to PNB, ACT Theatre, Neumos, and On The Boards this weekend. Grab tickets before they're gone!

The American Civil Liberties Union of Washington today filed a civil rights lawsuit against PeaceHealth, a Catholic hospital organization, for allegedly discriminating against a transgender teen and denying him medically necessary treatment because he is transgender. Pax Enstad, 17, sought to get chest reconstruction or "top" surgery, as recommended by his doctor, but PeaceHealth denied coverage for the surgery because it excludes "transgender services" in its company health plan, the lawsuit claims.

During a press conference at the ACLU's Seattle office, Enstad's mother, Cheryl, who has worked as a medical social worker at PeaceHealth for more than 20 years said she felt "stunned and betrayed" to find out her employer, whose insurance has covered her son since he was born, wouldn't cover the surgery. Pax told reporters he felt "singled out" by the company's policies. Getting top surgery was "not a choice, but a necessity," he said.

"I felt like my mom's workplace claimed to be so accepting and they told me that I would always be safe and taken care of, but then I wasn't," he said. "I really needed this surgery and they said I couldn't have it. I was really hurt."

PeaceHealth operates medical centers in Washington, Oregon and Alaska, with four in the Evergreen State.

Cheryl said her son often wasn't able to sleep due to debilitating anxiety and depression related to gender dysphoria. The Enstad family ended up paying more than $10,000 out-of-pocket for Pax's surgery and were only able to afford the medical care by taking out a second mortgage on their Bellingham home and using some of his college savings.

Mark, Cheryl, Maya, and Pax Enstad.
Mark, Cheryl, Maya, and Pax Enstad. Courtesy of Cheryl Enstad

In 2014 Washington State Insurance Commissioner Mike Kreidler banned insurance companies from denying coverage to trans individuals. However, PeaceHealth is exempt from that rule because it is a smaller, self-funded provider. Despite this exemption, the health organization must still comply with state and federal anti-discrimination laws, the ACLU asserts.

The American Civil Liberties Union of Washington today filed a civil rights lawsuit against PeaceHealth, a Catholic hospital organization, for discriminating against Pax Enstad, 17, and denying him medically necessary treatment because he is transgender..

The health organization's denying Pax's surgery is illegal discrimination on the grounds of sex and gender identity, said Lisa Nowlin, an ACLU staff attorney. The Enstad family is seeking unspecified damages and for the court to declare PeaceHealth's exclusion of medical care for trans people as illegal discrimination.

Since getting top surgery, Pax said "a weight lifted literally and metaphorically." Now that his appearance is more aligned with his gender identity, Pax said he's been able to spend more time with friends, go swimming for the first time in nine years, and feel proud to wear a suit at his high school homecoming dance. Most importantly, being able to get top surgery allowed him to come out of hiding, he said.

Pax said he recognized being able to get surgery was a privilege and he wants to ensure other trans people, especially trans youth, won't face discrimination when they seek medical treatment.

"I want [others] to have access to the same things I did," he said. "This is really important and lifesaving for kids."