Gay Partners Gain Health-Care Coverage

While gay marriage is a current hot-button issue for politicians, business leaders have been wrestling for years over whether to offer health coverage to their employees' domestic partners.

As employers look into the benefits and costs of covering domestic partners, more and more of them are saying yes — not due to a court order or political pressure but because they think it makes good business sense.

Since last year, 34 of the 500 biggest U.S. public companies have started the coverage, bringing the total up to 210, according to the Human Rights Campaign, a Washington, D.C.-based gay and lesbian lobbying group. In addition, the group counts 6,811 privately owned companies that now offer domestic partner benefits either to same-sex couples or to both same-sex and opposite-sex (unmarried, heterosexual) couples.

"Companies are doing it because it helps attract and retain good employees," says Kim Mills, the Campaign's education director. "Twenty years ago this was a new radical idea. Companies said, 'We can't afford to do it.'" Now, she says, companies can't afford not to.

"Employers have to pay attention to trends and movements in society," says Stephen Ziobrowski, a tax and employee benefits lawyer at Day, Berry & Howard in Boston (the firm added domestic partner benefits in 1995.) "If every employer in your field is offering these benefits, you don't want to be the last one to offer it. If you are perceived as having gone against the grain on an issue that 20 years from now will seem open-and-shut to a new generation, it doesn't look so good in hindsight."

Should Your Firm Sign Up?

Take a look at who has already. New York's alternative newspaper, the Village Voice, was the first employer in the United States to offer domestic partner benefits in 1982. The trend accelerated throughout the 1990s, with big, hip, consumer companies such as Apple Computer, Nike and Gap among the early adopters.

Some of the big names adding coverage in 2003 are much more culturally mainstream: Anheuser-Busch, Best Buy, Lexmark International and Sears, Roebuck. In 2004, General Electric, Eli Lilly, Staples, and United Parcel Service added coverage.

In the "Work Life" section of the Human Rights Campaign's Web site, under domestic partner benefits, the group lists major companies and public sector employers who are on board. It also rates companies based on other issues of importance to gays and lesbians, such as whether the company covers sexual orientation in its anti-discrimination policy and whether the company has a support group for gays and lesbians.

Costs Low for Biz, High for Couple

The benefits come at a small cost.

Covering same-sex couples raises overall health insurance costs by less than 1 percent, while covering both same-sex and opposite-sex couples increases costs by up to 3 percent, says Mills. Enrollment rates are low, 1 percent to 2 percent of total employees — closer to 2 percent if the company's definition of domestic partner includes opposite-sex couples, not just same-sex couples.

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