State considers health benefits for unmarried partners

Proposal would cover non-related live-in partners

By Todd A. Heywood

The Michigan Civil Service Commission is considering a proposal to extend health insurance benefits to unmarried, live-in partners of all state employees, regardless of sexual orientation or relationship.

Under the proposed policy, negotiated by the Office of the State Employer and unions representing state employees, health insurance coverage would be available to all non-related people over 18 who have shared a residence with a state employee for at least 12 months, covering both same-sex and opposite-sex partnerships. The children and dependents of those newly eligible will also be extended coverage under the same conditions as any other person eligible for coverage.

Action on the proposal was tabled by the commission Wednesday, but could be revisited as soon as January.

State Rep. Rick Jones (R-Grand Ledge) said the plan will cost too much at a time of budget austerity. The lawmaker, who is preparing to serve his first term in the state Senate next year, said the state cannot afford the program because it is facing a $1.6 billion budget hole. Jones also said he has heard state employees "joking" about using the new program to help friends in need of health care coverage.

Gov. Jennifer Granholm supports the proposal, her office said Wednesday afternoon.

"The agenda item before the Civil Service Commission honors a commitment that our administration negotiated with the state employee represented groups in 2004. We are honoring that commitment," Granholm spokesperson Liz Boyd wrote in an email.

The governor's office says the annual cost for the program could be as much as $5.7 million, but the CSC was told this morning the cost could be as low $2.2 million.

Neither figure considers the tax revenue which results from the plan. The IRS has determined that benefits provided under domestic partner-like programs are considered taxable income. As a result, the Human Rights Campaign reports that in 2007, people with partner benefits pay an additional $1,069 in federal taxes. The Michigan Department of Treasury was unaware of what amount of income tax in the state is generated by current domestic partner programs, such as those offered by state universities and private employers.

Gary Glenn, president of the American Family Association of Michigan, said the proposal, so long as it was not just for same-sex partners, was legal. But he questioned if it was good public policy.

"Even in the best of times, taxpayers should not be compelled to subsidize homosexual relationships that many people consider immoral," Glenn said in an email to Michigan Messenger. "At a time when Michigan is facing a $1.6 billion deficit, forcing taxpayers to subsidize new groups of beneficiaries - and especially a group whose choice of sexual behavior is fraught with a dramatically higher incidence of health hazards including serious life-threatening disease - is unthinkable and will only further increase the cost of healthcare for all of us."

Instead, he said the state should actively promote marriage - specifically and solely marriage between one man and one woman.

"Health insurance is a basic right and benefit," said Nusrat H. Ventimiglia, director of victim services for Equality Michigan. "To systematically exclude LGBT families from health coverage is just wrong."

Ventimiglia said in her typical day she regularly hears from gay and lesbian couples who are struggling because one partner is unable to access medical coverage.

Jay Kaplan, of the ACLU of Michigan Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgender Project, said the costs concerns are a red herring.

"Less than one percent of the eligible people take advantage of this," said Kaplan referring to programs established after a 2008 Michigan Supreme Court ruling which made same-sex domestic partner program illegal. As a result, universities and other public employers developed programs called Other Eligible Individual programs. Under those programs, an eligible employee can name a person as their OEI, but those people have to fit a list of criteria. Those criteria vary from public body to public body, but generally include verification that the two people have lived together for 12 months or more, share finances and possibly own property together."

Even if the cost of the proposal is at the highest estimate of $5.7 million, that amounts to only .0035 percent of the expected budget deficit.

The proposal the commission considered Wednesday stems from a 2006 contract agreement between state unions and the Granholm administration. Those approved contracts included the option to extend partner benefits for state employees. Granholm said under the 2004 amendment to the Constitution passed by voters she could not extend those benefits. Employees sued, resulting in the 2008 Supreme Court ruling barring gender based partner benefits.

"The bottom line is that this is about treating people fairly," Kaplan said. "And about competing with companies in the private sector that are already offering domestic partner benefits."

This story originally appeared on http://www.michiganmessenger.com

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