Friday, April 4, 2003

Missoula County, Montana approves health benefits for domestic partners

A story published today in The Missoulan reports that unmarried domestic partners can now join Missoula County's employee insurance plan, the county commissioners decided yesterday.

The move makes it possible for people in same-sex relationships, as well as heterosexual couples who are not formally married, to receive the same insurance coverage as heterosexual married couples. Commissioners Jean Curtiss and Bill Carey both supported the idea and voted for it in an administrative meeting Thursday. Commissioner Barbara Evans was not at the meeting. Evans previously had said she was divided on the issue and would probably abstain if present for the vote.

"I haven't heard a good argument for why the county shouldn't provide equal benefits for equal work," Carey said Thursday. "We're not going to make everybody happy all the time. But this is a fiscally responsible thing to do."

Carey said between eight and 24 workers are expected to benefit from the plan change. Missoula County is unique in the state for both self-insuring its employees and managing the claims that come from that insurance. Missoula's city government, for example, self-insures but hires a private company to manage the claims.

A county employee must sign an affidavit declaring another person as his or her "domestic partner" for health insurance coverage. The two people must be over 18, living together at least 12 months, not married or separated from any other person, not related by blood or marriage, engaged in a committed relationship and financially interdependent. The affidavit does not ask about sexual orientation or the gender of the second person.

County Risk Manager Hal Luttschwager said between 60 percent and 70 percent of the county's bargaining units opposed the change. Their main concern, he said, was the possibility of putting the plan in financial danger by adding the extra people.

"There's nothing out there that says adding a few partners is going to add to the financial burden of our plan," Curtiss said. She also questioned the level of opposition, noting that some bargaining group representatives said they had not polled their memberships but voted against the proposal anyway.

Two county employees were at Thursday's meeting, and both were critical of the plan. They questioned why the county was adding benefits this year after cutting some benefits last year. They also asked why the county appeared to be rushing into a decision while the state Supreme Court is considering a similar case involving the Montana university system.

County Chief Administrative Officer Ann Mary Dussault said the Supreme Court case involved whether the university system could be compelled to offer domestic partner coverage. In the county's instance, the commissioners were making their own decision to amend the county's insurance.

"There is no substantiation to the claim that domestic partners are of higher risk," Curtiss added in a prepared statement. "And while the law does not require us to insure domestic partners, I believe it is the right thing to do. We are not required to provide coverage for dental care, eye exams or prescriptions either, but we do so because we believe it is good for our employees and important to offer as part of our benefits package to retain quality employees."

The coverage should begin on July 1.

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