Friday, February 6, 2004



Virginia House considers partner insurance bill


A story published today in the Washington Blade reports that when the American Psychiatric Association decided to move its headquarters a year ago, its board members saw many advantages in relocating to Virginia — cheaper rent, spacious offices and better Beltway access. But officials had to weigh all of these advantages against one key sacrifice: the elimination of health insurance for the domestic partners of the APA’s employees.

The APA went ahead with the change of locale and policy, but joined a cadre of other businesses that wrote letters to Virginia lawmakers requesting regulatory changes that would allow private businesses to offer the same health coverage to the unmarried domestic partners of their employees as they do married spouses.

Virginia is the sole state to prohibit most companies from including anyone but an employee’s married spouse or dependent child in health insurance plans.

“As more than 2,500 companies and organizations now offer health insurance to partners, it is a shame that the state of Virginia has on its door a sign reading, ‘You’re not welcome here,’ wrote James H. Scully Jr., the APA’s medical director. “It’s not just bad policy for business, it also leaves more Virginians without health insurance, which certainly comes at a significant cost to the state.”

Conservative Virginia lawmakers have consistently resisted previous efforts to change the ban on private DP benefits. Earlier this week, the House Committee on Commerce & Labor began consideration of a new bill to enact domestic partner benefits, introduced in the current session by Del. James H. Dillard (R-Fairfax).

“We’ve been working to gather the support of many legislators by reinforcing the attitudes of companies who want to see this passed,” said Dyana Mason, the executive director of Equality Virginia, the state’s gay advocacy group. “Many of these companies are saying they wouldn’t have moved if they knew Virginia’s laws regarding insurance ahead of time.

“The lack of domestic partner benefits is going to factor in the state’s capability to attract new business in the future. Businesses are going to look elsewhere.”

House floor debate could be contentious

Mason said she receives several letters a month from small companies urging her organization to “work vigorously” for the enactment of Dillard’s legislation. Dillard’s bill would permit small, private companies in Virginia to augment current health policies by extending coverage to include unmarried heterosexual partners, siblings, and parents — in addition to gay couples — as long as they live in the same household.

If the Commerce & Labor Committee approves it, the Virginia House of Delegates will debate the bill on the floor before it moves on to the Senate, where it could face its most strident opposition.

Two weeks ago, Sen. Kenneth T. Cuccinelli (R-Fairfax), a Virginia state Senator known for his anti-gay views, withdrew his support from the domestic partner insurance bill after being swayed by Del. Robert F. McDonnell (R-Virginia Beach), another conservative legislator. Citing a belief that homosexuality is wrong and a desire not to “encourage this type of behavior into law,” Cuccinelli also said the bill offsets the state’s DOMA law, which limits the issuance of marriage licenses to heterosexual couples.

“The incentives I am opposed to that this bill would put into place far outweigh the economic benefits to the state,” Cuccinelli said. “When Bob McDonnell pointed those incentives out to me, I changed my mind about supporting it.”

Gay partners comprise a small percentage of the bill’s beneficiaries, Dillard said, and concern over traditional family values is overshadowing its purpose. “In this fervor to get after these same-sex couples, they prohibit you from having your mother have the insurance or your brother or whomever may be living with you,” he said.

Democratic Virginia Gov. Mark Warner supports Dillard’s legislation.

“It would be good for economic development in Virginia,” said Ellen Qualls, Warner’s spokesperson.

Small- and mid-sized employers usually contract with health care providers, which must adhere to the Virginia Bureau of Insurance’s regulations concerning domestic partner benefits. Many Fortune 500 companies and larger corporations self-insure, meaning they administer their own health care plans and can offer coverage to domestic partners.

And now, some of those large companies are advocating on behalf of small business.

“Everywhere in the United States, HP offers its employees health insurance coverage for their domestic partners, and HP has concluded that offering this benefit helps to maintain morale and boost employee productivity,” wrote John D. Hassell, Hewlett Packard’s director of governmental affairs, to Del. Harvey Morgan, the chair of the Commerce Committee. “Unfortunately, under current Virginia laws, not all employers are permitted to offer similar coverage.

“We understand a bill was introduced to rectify this situation, and I would encourage your active support.”

According to David Lampo, vice president of the Virginia Log Cabin Republicans, these endorsements signify the universal merits of domestic partner benefits.

“The so-called traditional family doesn’t describe many families in Virginia and the rest of America. Things are changing,” said Lampo. “Companies stepping forward to support this bill realize this change.”



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