Benefits for same-sex domestic partners make good sense for business and family

by M.B. Owens

Many Nashville area employers are following a nationwide trend by offering benefit packages to employees and their same-sex domestic partners, just as they do for married couples. Employers are doing so because it makes good business while helping employees and their families.

According to the magazine Government Executive, nationally more than half of the Fortune 500 corporations, along with thousands of other companies, provide benefits for domestic partners and their employees. So do hundreds of state, local governments, colleges and universities.

In Nashville, employers offering same-sex domestic partners include Vanderbilt University and Medical Center, HCA, Deloitte, Kroger, Ford and Aetna.

“Businesses and organizations are offering these benefit packages to help recruit the best candidates and to keep existing employees from leaving for greener pastures,” said John Wade, president and chairman of Nashville GLBT chamber of commerce. “The most talented employee for a position may have a domestic partner at home that needs health insurance, dental insurance or some other benefit. Employers need to offer these benefits if they want to be competitive in a changing multicultural marketplace.”

The largest private employer in Nashville, Vanderbilt University and Medical Center, has offered benefit packages to same sex couples since January 2000. To date more than 200 couples have participated.

“It is what brought me here as part of a supportive work environment,” said Jerry Jones, senior information officer at Vanderbilt University Medical Center, who began working at the facility in 2000.

The Vanderbilt benefit package offered to an employee’s partner is quite broad.

“Insurance benefits include health, dental, life, vision, accidental death, dismemberment and survivor,” said Jane Bruce, human resources benefit director at Vanderbilt. “Also a domestic partner is treated as a family member for medical and personal leave.”

At Vanderbilt an employee is required to register as having a domestic partner through a certification process allowing the partner to become eligible.

According to Bruce, the employee and the partner must meet with a designated official of the human resources department, fill out a form stating they are the same sex and not related by blood, and both be over 21 years old and not married to anyone else. In addition, they must state they are in a common household sharing joint responsibility and have been in a committed relationship for at least six months.

Participants are required to provide documentation, such as a checking account or lease agreement, with both names at the same address. Both must sign a document confirming the information is correct.

Jones said that his partner, Travis Smith, who as an independent contractor could not get benefits through an employer and could not afford them on his own. So far Smith has only used the vision insurance after registering three months ago.

“It is good to know the benefits are there when I need them and they make a difference in the quality of our life,” Smith said.

However, not everything is equal for domestic partners and married couples because of federal regulations.

“As required by law we have to tax the employer’s subsidy on the health care cost for domestic partners,” Bruce added.

Vanderbilt pays about 79 percent of the health care cost for both the employee and the partner. Due to the law, the employee must cover the tax on the partner’s benefit paid by the institution.

Smaller employers in the Nashville offer similar benefits.

Reverend Cynthia Andrews-Looper, pastor of Holly Trinity Community Church of the United Church of Christ (UCC), said she receives benefits for her partner and eight year old son through UCC.

“Our benefits include insurance for health, dental, drugs and life; plus my partner has rights to my pension in event that something happens to me,” she said

The broad healthcare policy provided by Blue Cross Blue Shield is certainly essential in terms of existing medical needs of her family because it includes features such as preventative checkups and testing along with major medical, Looper said.

Without the package available through UCC she would not be able to afford the health insurance, she continued.

Another Nashville employer, the U.S. government, appears to be the next big entity planning to extend domestic partners to its employees.

On December 19, 2007 The Domestic Partnership Benefits and Obligation Act was introduced by both houses of Congress allowing government employees’ with same-sex domestic partners to become eligible for federal health benefits, family medical leave, group life insurance, long-term care and retirement benefits.

“If signed into law this legislation would have a positive impact on the well being of many Nashville employees, their partners and families,” said Wade. “It is something that is good for the local and business community.”

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