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BOSTON (CBS/AP)-- A ruling ordering Massachusetts prison officials to provide sex-reassignment surgery to an inmate is being praised by advocates as important recognition that the surgery is a legitimate treatment for gender-identity disorder, even as critics including Sen. Scott Brown call it "an outrageous abuse of taxpayer dollars."

U.S. District Judge Mark Wolf ruled Tuesday in the case of Michelle Kosilek, a transgender inmate serving life in prison for murder. Wolf said the Department of Correction must provide the taxpayer-funded surgery because it is the only way to treat Kosilek's "serious medical need."

Kosilek was born male but has received hormone treatments and now lives as a woman in an all-male prison. Kosilek was named Robert when married to Cheryl Kosilek and convicted of murdering her in 1990.

While courts around the country have found that prisons must evaluate transgender inmates to determine their health care needs, most have ordered hormone treatments and psychotherapy. Wolf is the first judge to actually order sex reassignment surgery as a remedy to gender-identity disorder.

"It's great to see a judge recognize that transition-related health care is medically necessary health care and that transgender prisoners are entitled to the same health care that other folks who are incarcerated receive," said Kristina Wertz, director of policy and programs at the Transgender Law Center in San Francisco.

Kosilek's lawsuit has become fodder for radio talk shows and Massachusetts lawmakers who say the state should not be forced to pay for a convicted murderer's sex-change operation - which can cost up to $20,000 - especially since many insurance companies reject the surgery as elective.

Republican lawmakers, including then Massachusetts state Sen. Scott Brown, filed legislation in 2008 to ban the use of taxpayer funds to pay for the surgery for prison inmates. The amendment did not make it into law.

Now in the U.S. Senate, Brown said Tuesday that the sex-reassignment surgery would be "an outrageous abuse of taxpayer dollars."

"We have many big challenges facing us as a nation, but nowhere among those issues would I include providing sex change surgery to convicted murderers," Brown said in a statement. "I look forward to common sense prevailing and the ruling being overturned."

Diane Wiffin, a spokeswoman for the prisons department, told The Associated Press that the agency would have no immediate comment on the ruling.

"We are reviewing the decision and exploring our appellate options," Wiffin said.

Complete coverage of the Robert Kosilek case on Crimesider

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