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'Invalidated' transgender Floridians and experts say new health rules do more harm

Ted Eytan
Creative Commons License

Many transgender adults are grappling with the state's new health landscape after state boards issued new rules for care at the end of June.

Thousands of transgender adults are grappling with Florida’s new health landscape after two state medical boards issued new rules for care at the end of June, but some transgender adults and experts feel the rules potentially do more harm than good.

In May, Gov. Ron DeSantis signed into law Senate Bill 254, which outlaws gender-affirming care for children and restricts how adults receive it. Later in June, the boards of medicine and osteopathic medicine had a joint meeting to finalize rules surrounding how these patients could continue such treatments under the guidelines.

“It just was really unreasonable," said Lisa Smith, a transgender woman from Orlando.

Smith has been taking estrogen for 23 years, but her access to it was cut off after SB 254 prevented nursing practitioners at clinics from prescribing hormone replacement therapy, also know as HRT. Under the new rules, former patients can continue receiving medication only through a physician and after signing a state-approved informed consent document.

"So really now, it's just been finding the right doctor," she said.

However, Smith faces another issue: signing the document.

 Lisa Smith
Joe Mario Pedersen
90.7 WMFE News
Lisa Smith has been taking estrogen for 23 years, but her access was cut off after SB 254 prevented nursing practitioners from prescribing hormone replacement therapy.

"It feels invalidating like, we're agreeing that our condition, for lack of a better term, is not valid or based on good evidence. I morally can't agree with that. It feels coerced," she said. "I have to sign this agreement to continue what I've been doing for 23 years. It's like the bully says 'You want this, don't you?' And they're gonna mess with you to the point that it's just not even worth it."

In addition to signing the document, Smith and other transgender adults will have to consent to a suicidal-risk assessment evaluation every three months, and an evaluation with a psychiatrist or psychologist every two years, on top of the monthly bloodwork she already had to do before SB 254.

She'll need to do all of that for the duration of her treatment.

"For us, treatment is our entire lives. That would involve seeing therapists routinely, forever," she said.

Those who established a prescription with a physician prior to SB 254 can continue to renew for the next six months under an emergency rule established in June.

Smith previously received care from a clinic and can’t get a new prescription without signing the document. She has one more refill left on her HRT before she would have to seek a physician. She thinks the prescription will last two months, maybe three if she stretches it out.

Uncertainty of Treatment

Even if Smith agrees to proceed with the new rules, she and other transgender people are worried about how another bill could potentially affect them.

The Protections of Medical Conscience law allows pharmacists to deny a trans person medicine if they feel it goes against their ethics, said Jay Wolfson a professor of public health at Stetson University College of Law.

"The 'conscience' law is expressly intended to protect physicians who do not believe they should perform specific types of clinical services, such as abortion or hormone replacement therapy," he said.

With uncertainty hanging in the air, experts are worried more transgender people may continue to stockpile medication.

"Those medications have a shelf life for a reason," said Syvonne Carter, the CEO and president of 26Health, a Central Florida LBGTQ clinic.

Carter is concerned the uncertainty of receiving treatment will cause patients to stockpile and stretch out reserves, leading to expired medication and unhealthy consequences.

“There may be different things that will grow in that medication like mold and things of that nature. And then medication won't be as effective given that postexpiration time,” Carter said.

Legal Confusion

Additionally, Carter is concerned about how quickly laws and state board rules have changed, creating confusion among patients. She said 26Health is getting calls every day hoping the clinic offers HRT.

"We have had patients who have debated our interpretation of SB 254," Carter said. "I wouldn’t say I feel that there is a community penetration of understanding the law."

Before SB 254, clinics were the largest providers of HRT, but the law has shifted the responsibility solely to physicians, Carter said.

Florida Republican state Sen. Clay Yarborough is a sponsor of SB 254. He declined an interview with WMFE but emailed an explanation as to why midlevel health care workers, such as nursing practitioners, can no longer offer HRT. He wrote that because of the complication of risks associated with the practice, a trained physician is necessary.

"Individuals taking hormone replacements face a substantially increased risk of serious cardiac events, including stroke, heart attack and pulmonary embolism, according to the American College of Cardiology," Yarborough wrote. "Adults are free to provide voluntary, informed consent and receive prescriptions or procedures, but they should be informed of the nature and risks ahead of time."

Carter is unsure Yarborough's response provides clarity on the decision to remove midlevel health care workers as providers of HRT.

“I don't know if there is any evidence-based study that currently stipulates that a nurse practitioner couldn't provide the same mid-level of care or level of care for the community as they have been doing for years in the past,” Carter said.

Transitioning to a new Florida

Alex Sierra feels like being a transgender man in Florida is a lot like being stuck on a railroad track.

 Jake and Alex Sierra of Orlando
Joe Mario Pedersen
90.7 WMFE News
Alex and Jake Sierra, a married coupe, said they have a physician who reliably provides testosterone, but that he added changes in the state have caused them mental anguish.

"I can't sit and stare at this train all day. But if I don't look at it periodically, I don't know when it's going to hit me," he said.

Alex and his husband, Jake, also a transgender man, have a physician who reliably provides testosterone, but they said he added changes in the state have caused them mental anguish.

"I feel exhausted and targeted. I haven't slept well in a few months," Jake said. "Sixteen years ago, when I first started, I signed an informed consent when I was 21, and so it just feels like they're trying to make it harder for us to exist."

So much so, the two have spoken about a contingency plan to leave the U.S. if they can no longer receive medication or they feel they're being targeted for violence. For now, they've chosen to stay and help spread useful information for other transgender people, which Alex does via his website — a tool for keeping up with transgender health news updates and resources.

More changes could be on the way as efforts to reverse SB 254 are underway. In June, federal Judge Robert Hinkle issued an order lifting the ban on such therapies for transgender youth for three families challenging the rules. Hinkle argued that gender identity is real and that denying treatments could lead to significant harm.

The case is set to go to trial April 15.

Copyright 2023 WMFE. To see more, visit WMFE.

Joe Mario Pedersen