Same-sex couples get separate, unequal coverage

by Nancy Ngo

Charged by the Board of Regents to make the University a more equitable workplace, the Office of Human Resources created a program to provide medical coverage to same-sex domestic partners of University employees in 1993. Today, the three-year-old plan is under attack for not doing enough to address the insurance needs of the University’s gay and lesbian employees.
The time has come to revisit the reimbursement program, said Beth Zemsky, director of the Gay, Lesbian, Bisexual, Transgender Programs Office.
Most University employees are covered by the Minnesota State Employee Group health plan. Unlike married couples, however, same-sex partners cannot share the benefits of the Minnesota State Employee Group and must find a private insurer.
The University’s same-sex domestic partner reimbursement program reimburses University employees and their registered partners up to a maximum of $186 per month for medical costs. That amount is based on the difference between what employees would have paid for a spouse under the state plan and what they are likely to pay for a same-sex partner under private insurance.
The reimbursement program was implemented in 1993 after a 1986 statement by the regents said the University should provide the same benefits to same-sex domestic partners that it would to married couples. The benefits package was aimed at creating a more equitable workplace for all University employees.
Zemsky criticized the plan for taking too long to reimburse employees and their domestic partners.
Employees under the same-sex domestic partner program are reimbursed at the end of each academic quarter. “It is assumed that they will have the money to hold them over for a few months,” Zemsky said.
The reimbursement process does not apply to married couples, who are fully covered by the state plan and thus do not have to provide their own insurance. “We are far from having equitable benefits for same-sex partners,” Zemsky said.
Nancy Collins-Jabas, a counselor for the University’s Office of Employee Benefits, agreed that employees under the same-sex reimbursement program face a significant burden because of the quarterly payment plan.
In addition to time inconvenience, Zemsky said employees under the benefits package are taxed on their reimbursements because the Internal Revenue Service does not consider same-sex partnerships valid.
“The state has been an impediment, and the IRS a barrier,” Zemsky said.
James Tracy, a professor in the Department of History, said the plan creates inequality among University employees because it does not include all domestic partnerships. Heterosexual couples who live together are not eligible for benefits.
“If the University is going to make a change, then the fair way to do it is to extend the plan to all couples — whether they are heterosexual or homosexual,” Tracy said.
Collins-Jabas said giving benefits only to same-sex domestic couples was fair because the state does not recognize same-sex partnerships.
“Heterosexual couples have the option of marrying, and because society does not offer this option to same-sex partners, … this policy is needed,” said Collins-Jabas.
Zemsky said the original proposal for the benefits package included heterosexual couples but was too expensive.
Money has often been the problem when finding solutions for a more equitable plan for employees, said Collins-Jabas.
Collins-Jabas said one solution was for the University to leave the state insurance plan and find an alternate insurance provider that would treat same-sex domestic partners as a spouse.
“People would certainly prefer to put their partner on the plan as a spouse; it’s a simpler process,” Collins-Jabas said.
She said the problem with separating from the state’s medical insurance plan was that the University would lose financial benefits of being affiliated with the state.
Without the state insurance plan, the pool of employees receiving benefits would become smaller causing the insurance costs to rise, she said.