Tuesday, February 1, 2011

35,000 Michigan state employees to gain "plus one" health benefits

Almost three years ago, the Michigan Supreme Court ruled that granting health benefits to same-sex domestic partners of government employees was a violation of the state's "defense of marriage" constitutional amendment approved by the voters in 2004.

Well the Michigan Civil Service Commission voted last week for a "work around" that will actually expand eligibility for benefits. What's unconstitutional is recognition of unmarried couples, so the benefits can now go to anyone who has lived with the state employee for at least a year and that person's children. The person is called an "other eligible adult." About half the state workforce will be covered by the new policy, which goes into effect October 1. Coverage was negotiated with two unions, UAW and SEIU, and benefits were extended to some nonunion employees as well. Other unions are likely to negotiate for the benefits when their contracts expire later in the year.

The University of Michigan responded to the state supreme court's ruling by extending benefits to Otherwise Qualified Adults (OQA), anyone who has lived with the employee for more than six months, not as an employee or a tenant. The individual also cannot be a relative. Children of an OQA are also eligible for coverage. I have not seen the exact language approved by the Commission, so I don't know if it also excludes relatives.

I am frankly surprised by the simplicity of these eligibility requirements. Most of the employee benefit policies I know of that are not strictly "couple" based (and many that are, like that at my own university!) require some sort of evidence of economic interdependence. There's a logic to such a requirement; it allows an employee to protect the well-being of someone with whom the employee has established a level of connection that warrants economic and emotional peace of mind. I see a true "plus one" policy as representing something different. It essentially values the work of each employee equally by giving each employee the opportunity to enroll one other adult for benefits. The Michigan plan is not a pure "plus one" policy because the employee must live with the other adult, but with no other requirement it allows coverage for a friend that would be unavailable under most other plans.

I have long criticized domestic partner benefits for same-sex couples only. Now different-sex couples in Michigan will be equally eligible for benefits. It's taken a long time, but it looks like Michigan will have a better policy than the one struck down by the court.

As more states grant formal recognition to same-sex couples, through marriage, civil union, or domestic partnership, the danger exists (and has been realized in many places) that only those who formalize their relationships will be eligible for employee health benefits for their partners. It will, in other words, make marriage mandatory. The LGBT movement should not be happy with such a result. The fight for marriage equality is supposed to be for the choice whether to marry, but there's no choice if it's the difference between health insurance for your partner or no health insurance for your partner. My university doesn't require that choice. Now Michigan doesn't either. Lambda Legal is fighting for benefits for same-sex couples only in Arizona, even though a 2009 law stripped both same-sex and different-sex couples of those benefits. The case that will be argued in the Ninth Circuit on Valentine's Day. I think Lambda is making a mistake, and I'll be writing about that more next week.

No comments: