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Transgender people struggle to find quality healthcare in upstate New York

Tom Magnarelli
Ethan Johnson (right) talks about coming out as a transman.

Transgender service providers say doctors are not being trained to deal with LGBT issues. Medical professionals attended a conference held by ACR Health and the Q Center in Syracuse on Wednesday to learn more about the struggles transgender people face in accessing quality health care.

Eight months ago, 24 year-old Ethan Johnson of Syracuse came out as a transman. That’s someone who was born female, but who identifies as a man.

“It takes time for people to adjust to the news,” Johnson said. “They’re not just going to say, ‘Yes, you’re trans, that’s awesome, let’s throw a party!’ No, they need to be informed. Reaching out to my parents and informing them what it means to be transgender, it really helped them.”

Johnson has had difficulty finding a LGBT affirming healthcare provider in Syracuse. He was referred to Planned Parenthood in Ithaca to receive hormones and blood work.

Some educators and therapists treating transgender youth in upstate New York said the number of doctors they can refer their clients to is limited. In some areas there may only be one. That creates problems such as a long waiting list, issues with whether doctors will accept the patient’s health insurance and doctors who will sometimes pass on a client if they feel the client is not ready for transgender services.

Dr. Carolyn Wolf-Gould is the founder and director of the Gender Wellness Center in Oneonta which treats transgender people. Wolf-Gould admitted, before she opened the center, she initially turned away a transgender client who asked her for treatment because she had no experience treating transgender people and didn’t know what to do. But she did her research for three months before the patient came in to see her.

“He wanted to talk about the arthritis in his knee and smoking cessation," Wolf-Gould said. "So I was all prepared to be the right kind of doctor and that’s really what concerned him.”

Wolf-Gould suspects that more doctors will be trained in medical issues involving gender reassignment in the next ten to 15 years.

Sara Farmer is a therapist who treats transgender people and their families and said it is difficult to know which doctors she can refer patients to.

"I think that it is important that doctors that are willing to provide these services to this population, let us know that they are willing to do that,” Farmer said.

Mattie Barone works at the Q Center in Syracuse and said she only has one or two doctors she can refer her clients to because so many doctors have never treated transgender patients before.

“We see clients being passed because people feel like they’re not ready, they’re not ready to do this, they’re not sure," Barone said. "They’re weary about what they’re going to be doing. I think its important that people get this knowledge, come to these trainings, have people come in that know what they’re doing, and talk to them so that we can open a broader range of services for these patients.”

In December 2014, Gov. Andrew Cuomo mandated that all public and private insurances have to cover gender confirming care including surgeries.