Wednesday, October 19, 2005

Florida County OKs Partner Benefits

(Link) Florida's Palm Beach county has approved taxpayer-backed health benefits for the domestic partners of county employees. The catch: the employees are paying nearly five times more out of pocket for the bennies than hetero employees.

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LNewsEditor said...

JIC Post:
By Andy Reid
South Florida Sun-Sentinel

Gay, lesbian and other unmarried Palm Beach County employees can receive taxpayer-backed health benefits for their domestic partners -- but it will cost them more than their married co-workers.

County commissioners on Tuesday stopped short of approving a plan that covered the entire cost of extending health benefits starting Jan. 1 to the domestic partners of unmarried employees.

Instead, they voted 4-3 for a plan that requires employees seeking coverage for unmarried domestic partners to pay a share of monthly premiums the county covers for employees' spouses.

As a result, instead of paying the $91 a month a county employee pays for health coverage for a spouse, it would cost $440.97 a month for coverage for an unmarried domestic partner, said Nancy Bolton, county risk management director.

The commission's decision to offer domestic partner benefits was a "great step," but those benefits should not cost more than the amount married employees pay, said Rand Hoch, founder of the Palm Beach County Human Rights Council, a gay rights organization.

"The fair thing to do is treat all county employees equally," said Hoch, who planned to ask the commission to reconsider its vote and approve the plan that covers all costs.

But commissioners who voted for the scaled-down plan raised concerns about the cost of adding more people to the county's self-insured system. They agreed to re-evaluate the premium costs in one year.

"I want to crawl before I walk," said Commissioner Karen Marcus, who voted along with commissioners Warren Newell, Addie Greene and Tony Masilotti for the proposal that requires employees to pay larger premiums for unmarried domestic partners.

Charging some employees more than others sends the wrong message to people the county wants to hire and keep as employees, Commissioner Burt Aaronson said.

Commissioners Aaronson, Mary McCarty and Jeff Koons supported the proposal that provided the same benefits at the same costs.

"From a business standpoint, it makes sense. From a human standpoint, it makes sense," Aaronson said.

The plan approved Tuesday makes health insurance, including dental insurance, and life insurance available to the domestic partners of unmarried county employees. Those employees also can start using sick leave and bereavement leave for their domestic partners.

Flex spending accounts, extended health benefits after an employee stops working for the county and use of the Family Medical Leave Act are not allowed because those are federal programs and the federal government does not recognize domestic partnerships, Bolton said.

To qualify a domestic partner for benefits, an employee must provide proof that can include a shared deed or lease; driver's licenses showing a common address; wills listing each other as beneficiaries; and joint credit card accounts.

How many of the 6,000 employees under county commission control would seek domestic partnership benefits is unknown.

The county's Risk Management Department estimates that domestic-partner health insurance would increase 1 percent to 2 percent, which would be $450,000 to $950,000 a year. The county's total budget is $3.25 billion.

Broward County, Gainesville, Key West and Tampa are among the local governments in Florida that now, like Palm Beach County, offer domestic partner health benefits. Almost half of the Fortune 500 companies do as well, according to the Human Rights Council.

"It shows that the county commissioners are recognizing a variety of family relationships and that they are honoring those relationships," Hoch said about Tuesday's vote. "It is a good start."