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Judge denies evaluating trans kids in Medicaid fight

Ted Eytan
Creative Commons

Update: 3:38 p.m. Wednesday, Jan. 18

A federal judge has rejected a request by Gov. Ron DeSantis’ administration to conduct “mental examinations” on a pair of 12-year-olds who are plaintiffs in a challenge to a state rule prohibiting Medicaid coverage for gender-affirming care for transgender people.

Lawyers for the Florida Agency for Health Care Administration, which largely oversees the Medicaid program, filed a motion Tuesday asking U.S. District Judge Robert Hinkle to order the evaluations of plaintiffs “Susan Doe” and “K.F.,” arguing the state has “good cause to conduct the mental examinations” on the trans children.

A psychiatrist selected by the state to conduct the exams, South Carolina-based Geeta Nangia, in court documents challenged the use of medical interventions for trans children and adolescents, calling such treatment “risky at best,” and supporting the state’s stance.

The DeSantis administration last summer approved the rule to stop Medicaid payments to medical providers for such treatments as puberty blockers, hormone therapy and gender-reassignment surgery. The costs of such surgeries, services and medications can run to thousands of dollars per month.

Four transgender plaintiffs, including Susan Doe and K.F., filed a federal lawsuit challenging the rule, alleging treatment of gender dysphoria is “medically necessary, safe and effective” for transgender children and adults.

In the lawsuit, parents of the children diagnosed with gender dysphoria expressed concern that the changes to the Medicaid program would have a negative effect on their children’s mental health and could even lead to attempted suicide. The federal government defines gender dysphoria as clinically “significant distress that a person may feel when sex or gender assigned at birth is not the same as their identity.”

But in the motion filed Tuesday, the state’s lawyers argued Nangia needs to examine the children.

RELATED: Public hearing scheduled for proposals to restrict gender-affirming care for minors in Florida

“Defendants are entitled to confirm whether or not plaintiffs suffer from gender dysphoria. Defendants also are entitled to explore whether plaintiffs have undergone appropriate mental health treatment. And defendants are entitled to explore whether comorbidities, such as depression and anxiety, may be the root cause of plaintiffs’ emotional distress, and whether reversal of their gender affirming treatment will negatively impact their mental health as alleged,” Mohammad Jazil, the state’s lead lawyer on the case, argued.

The Agency for Health Care Administration has approved a $950,000 contract with Jazil’s firm, Holtzman Vogel Baran Torchinsky & Josefiak PLLC, to represent the state in the dispute over the Medicaid rule. The firm also received more than $20,000 in separate contracts for legal research on the rule as it was being developed and approved last year. The state has paid the firm more than $180,000 thus far, according to state records.

The rule went into effect in August, and Hinkle refused in October to issue a preliminary injunction to block it.

Tuesday’s motion said the psychological evaluations of the 12-year-olds would consist of an initial interview that would last about two hours; a “comprehensive psychiatric evaluation” to address gender dysphoria that would include “psychiatric history, developmental history, medical history, family history, social history;” and, among other things, discussion of “familial stability” and “peer groups.”

Nangia is CEO of Known and Loved, a Greenville, S.C.-based Christian organization focusing on children who have been in foster or adoptive care.

The organization’s website said Nangia “has a passion for walking children and families through a journey toward stronger and healthier relationships … and for building children’s self concept by helping them understand that they are indeed ‘fearfully and wonderfully made’ by God.”

The plaintiffs’ lawyers pledged to oppose the state’s request for the examinations.

“We believe that the defendants' motion is completely inappropriate, invasive and unnecessary. We will be fighting this, and we hope that the court will deny this request,” Simone Criss, Trangender Rights Initiative director at Southern Legal Counsel, told The News Service of Florida in an email Tuesday.

Carl Charles, a senior attorney at Lambda Legal who also represents the plaintiffs, provided a nearly identical statement.

An Oct. 3 declaration by Nangia, filed in court documents, laid out her skepticism about gender-affirming treatment for youths.

Nangia, who is being paid $350 an hour by the state for “documentation and review” and $550 an hour for “deposition or trial testimony," said she has “treated over a thousand patients with gender dysphoria” during her 15-year career as a psychiatrist.

The psychiatrist said she has seen a “dramatic increase” in the number of children and adolescents who experience gender dysphoria or identify as transgender over the past decade.

“Important questions regarding the increased prevalence of gender dysphoria or transgenderism among youth must be raised,” she argued, blaming the increase in part on a “bandwagon effect.”

But psychiatrist Dan Karasik, one of the plaintiffs’ experts, picked apart Nangia’s record in a rebuttal, calling the number of patients she claimed to have treated as “highly suspect” and disputing her allegations that trans patients regretted gender-affirming treatment.

Karasik also attributed the increase in the number of transgender youths to changes in how data is collected.

Nangia’s declaration, however, argued that “social culture” changes have caused more widespread acceptance of what she called “transgenderism,” through support on social media, in school clubs and by celebrities who “promote and glamorize transgenderism.” Parents in her practice also “more readily embrace” trans children, as do medical professionals, she said.

“Such observation of my patients make me weary (sic) of increasing numbers of youth becoming vulnerable to adopting a movement’s ideologies, principles, and behaviors merely in an effort to attain the reward of widespread affirmation and approval that the movement provides,” she said.

She said adolescence is a “critical period of identity formation and wanting to belong, and a period of vulnerability,” and she linked an increase in gender dysphoria to the rise of LGBTQ “advocacy and awareness” movements.

“To provide children with the ability to make very serious medical choices that affect their overall health and self concept for the rest of their lives, including their reproductive capability, during a season of such tremendous neurodevelopmental growth and susceptibility is risky, at best,” Nangia argued.

It’s unclear whether Hinkle will approve the state’s request.

In a Nov. 15 scheduling order, Hinkle said that, under court rules, the plaintiffs could have to undergo “appropriate examinations … but no individual will be required to submit to an examination by a transgender denier or skeptic.”

Yale School of Medicine professor Meredithe McNamara, also one of the plaintiffs’ experts, blasted the state’s effort.

“It’s deeply concerning that the state is wasting its resources to weaponize mental health care and subject trans youth to traumatizing assessments that will be inferior to assessments they’ve already received by qualified clinicians,” McNamara, who specializes in adolescent medicine, said in an email.

DeSantis, who is widely considered a potential frontrunner in the 2024 Republican presidential contest, and his allies have taken a number of steps to curtail gender-affirming treatment. For example, at the Department of Health’s request, state medical boards recently advanced a proposal to prohibit Florida doctors from using puberty blockers, hormone therapy or surgery to treat children diagnosed with gender dysphoria.

Dara Kam - News Service of Florida