TORONTO - Ontario will soon join other provinces in providing coverage for sex-change surgery under the province's health insurance plan, Health Minister George Smitherman confirmed Thursday.

Smitherman said the details have not been finalized, but Ontario will start paying for sexual reassignment surgery for the first time in 10 years, providing coverage for the limited number of people who qualify for the procedure.

"It's the government's intention to move forward with the provision of services on about the same level as they were (when) cancelled some number of years ago," he said.

"(It would) probably affect between eight and 10 people in Ontario, who after having very, very sustained psychological evaluations would be deemed by the Centre for Addiction and Mental Health as appropriate candidates to receive a surgical intervention."

Ontario's previous Conservative government cancelled coverage of sex-change operations in 1998, leaving some people stranded midway through the process.

The Ontario Human Rights Commission ruled in 2006 that the province should pay the bill for three people whose sex-change procedures were interrupted by the cancellation, but it did not compel the province to reinstate coverage of the operations.

NDP Leader Howard Hampton said it was about time the Liberal government honoured a long-standing promise to pay for sexual reassignment surgery.

"It's something that the McGuinty government promised, and it's a promise that they need to keep," Hampton said.

The Progressive Conservatives declined to comment on the issue, saying they wanted to wait and hear something more from the government than Smitherman's musings to reporters.

Critics of Ontario's 10-year prohibition of paying for sex-change operations have long maintained it would not cost the province much to cover the procedures, especially since few people would qualify under the Ontario Health Insurance Plan.

A small private hospital in Montreal, the Centre Metropolitain de Chirurgie Plastique, charges patients $17,000 for a sex-change operation.

Smitherman said he would have more details about coverage for sex-change operations in a few weeks when he formally announces funding for a range of health-care services in Ontario.

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