(This story was first published in the March 14, 2013 edition of the Vermont Standard.)
By Virginia Dean
Same-sex spouses are currently anticipating the ultimate passage of a bill that would provide them with the same health coverage as opposite-sex partners.
The recently introduced act is currently sitting in the Vermont House of Representatives, having been read for the first time and referred to the Committee on Health Care last week on Feb.21.
Sponsored by local Rep. Alison Clarkson (D-Windsor 5) among some 27 other state representatives, the bill proposes to require employers of non-Vermont states to offer the same health coverage and benefits to employees with a same-sex spouse as employees with an opposite-sex spouse.
“Why wouldn’t I be supportive?” Clark said. “In concept, I’m absolutely supportive of everyone — heterosexual or homosexual — getting the same benefits period. All should be treated equally under the law.”
Kim Fountain, executive director of RU12? Community Center, Inc.
“This is a great first step,” Fountain said. “We support the passage of H-315, and thank the representatives who introduced the bill for their continued support and advocacy for all the LGBTQ communities in Vermont.”
RU12? Is the only Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender, Queer community center in the state that works in close coalition with other LGBTQ groups to secure equal rights.
Although the proposed bill is exciting news for these groups, Fountain noted, there are hidden caveats that could deflate that exhilaration.
“We have to remember that we are only looking at health care coverage,” Fountain said. “It does not include all benefits such as retirement plans or family leave health insurance, for instance. It is trumped by the Employee Retirement Income Security Act that covers federal benefits.”
In addition, the director added, if an employer doesn’t contract with an insurance company but instead pays for health benefits out of its own assets, or so-called “self-insured plans,” the employer is not subject to the state’s insurance laws.
“That means that the employer may rely on the federal definition of marriage but could choose to cover same-sex spouses,” said Fountain. “Employers who buy coverage from insurers in those states must follow that state’s law, even if the employees live in another state.”
For those companies, in addition, whose members argue that the new bill would result in skyrocketing health care costs, Fountain cited a 2009 report put out by the Employee Benefit Research Institute indicating that that may be a misnomer.
“The study indicates that employees eligible for same-sex domestic partner coverage tend to be young and healthy,” said Fountain. “Enrollment is low. Only 1 percent of eligible employees who are offered domestic partner coverage enroll, primarily because most domestic partners have coverage through their own employers.”
Any increased risk from AIDS among male same-sex domestic partners, often cited by companies opposed to offering these benefits, appears to be offset by a decreased risk among female same-sex couples, Fountain added. Sames-ex couples also have a very low rate of pregnancy.
Same-sex spouses do not quality for many federal benefits, Fountain explained, nor are they treated as family under the federal tax code.
“The Defense of Marriage Act (in 1996) defines marriage as a legal union only between a man and a woman,” Fountain stated. “Same-sex spouses do not have access to continued employer sponsored health benefits under the COBRA (Consolidated Omnibus Budget Reconciliation Act) insurance plan. They also cannot take family leave to care for a same-sex spouse or partner under the Family and Medical Leave Act.”
Lastly, for such companies as Corning, IBM, and Raytheon, extending same-sex domestic partners benefits will now require them to marry, Fountain said.
“This may complicate some instances where DOMA comes into play,” she reflected. “And, legally speaking, getting married could create immigration issues. There are some types of visas, for example, that are meant to be temporary, and, if you get married to someone who is a citizen, it could flag your renewal application and reflect your more permanent decision to stay.”
Accordingly, most US citizens who are married to citizens of other countries have the right to seek legal immigration status for their spouses, but same-sex couples have no such right because of DOMA, Fountain said.
However, in Washington, D.C., US President Obama is not the only politician to support comprehensive immigration reform in which same-sex couples would be entitled to the same immigration rights as heterosexual pairs.
Vermont’s Democratic Senator Patrick Leahy, for example, recently unveiled his proposed legislation to also update the national immigration law to permit American citizens to sponsor same-sex spouses applying for legal residency in the US.
“Preserving family unity is central to our immigration policy,” said Leahy in a statement. “President Obama understands that, which is why I was so pleased to see that he included the Uniting American Families Act (UAFA) as a core tenet of the immigration principles he outlined last month.”
Leahy has recently noted that the UAFA would be instrumental in granting same-sex bi-national couples the same immigration benefits as heterosexual couples.
“Leahy is taking on a chunk of the federal DOMA,” Fountain said. “It’s one more action that would be chipping away at it because that is what is really stopping full marriage benefits for same-sex couples. It would be a great benefit — definitely. We have such a supportive legislature here in Vermont in terms of LGBTQ rights. Legislators are so willing to get to as many of those as possible which is remarkable. We have a pretty progressive legislature whose members keep up with the times. It’s exciting to live in a state with that kind of support.”
To subscribe to an electronic edition of the Vermont Standard and get your local news every Wednesday night at 8 p.m. click here. – Only $25/year