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Gay, lesbian feds cheer extension of spouse benefits

Jul. 10, 2013 - 11:01AM   |  
By SEAN REILLY   |   Comments
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Gay rights supporters gather outside the Supreme Court on June 26, the same day the court struck down the Defense of Marriage Act, which barred federal recognition of same-sex marriages for purposes of providing benefits. (AFP)

Ever since their 2004 marriage, Ed Horvath had been battling to get federal health insurance for his spouse, Richard Neidich. Following last month’s Supreme Court decision striking down the Defense of Marriage Act, it took Horvath a mere two days to sign Neidich up.

“It’s something that we’ve been waiting for and anticipating for a long time,” Horvath, a senior human resources specialist at the Government Accountability Office, said in an interview last week. “It’s something that we really think will benefit us in the long run.”

It was a sentiment echoed by many gay and lesbian federal workers as the Office of Personnel Management hustled to make benefits available to legally married same-sex couples. In a memo issued two days after the court’s June 26 decision, acting OPM Director Elaine Kaplan said same-sex spouses are now considered eligible family members under the Federal Employees Health Benefits Program.

Similarly, same-sex spouses are now eligible for benefits under Federal Employees’ Group Life Insurance family coverage, and federal dental, vision and long-term care insurance plans.

All retirees in legal same-sex marriages will have two years to tell OPM of their marital status and make changes to retirement benefits. OPM will soon develop guidance to help retirees decide whether to change their pension options to provide benefits for a surviving same-sex spouse, Kaplan said, adding that same-sex spouses of future retiring employees will be eligible for survivor annuities.

OPM followed up last week with instructions to insurance carriers on how to decide benefits eligibility. Retirees not already in FEHBP, for example, “may not enroll based on a new or newly eligible marriage,” the instructions state.

Although only 13 states and the District of Columbia currently recognize same-sex marriage, Kaplan’s memo imposed no residency restrictions on eligibility for any of the benefits listed.

“We are celebrating, and we are getting the word out,” said Len Hirsch, a Smithsonian Institution employee and president of Federal GLOBE, an organization of lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender federal employees that has long pressed for extending benefits to same-sex partners. While white-collar activists are likely in the loop, Hirsch said the group will be working with unions to make sure blue-collar workers also know what is now available.

In the 5-4 ruling, the high court struck down the portion of the Defense of Marriage Act that barred recognition of same-sex marriages for purposes of receiving federal benefits. Exactly how many people stand to gain from the decision is unknown; OPM is not tracking the number of federal employees who enroll same-sex spouses for benefits, a spokesman said.

But for some, the impact could be dramatic.

Daren Draves, a U.S. Postal Service attorney in San Diego, expects the decision will save almost $7,500 she’s now paying annually on health coverage for her wife, a stay-at-home mother with their two adopted, special needs children. In addition, Draves said in an email, her spouse will now be eligible for survivor annuities, a development that could make the difference between “poverty and a decent life.”

In a report this year, the Congressional Research Service said an estimated 34,000 federal employees are in same-sex relationships, including state-recognized marriages, civil unions and domestic partnerships. But that estimate, produced by a California think tank, is five years old and does not include retirees.

The cost of extending benefits coverage to same-sex spouses will be modest, according to the Congressional Budget Office. In an analysis late last year of a bill that would have allowed same-sex domestic partners of federal employees to enroll in FEHBP and other programs, the budget office pegged the 10-year cost at $144 million. In making that estimate, the budget office assumed that less than 1 percent of federal employees would choose a registeredsame-sex domestic partnership — a category that includes marriage — to qualify their partners for benefits. The bill, sponsored by now-retired Sen. Joe Lieberman, I-Conn., did not pass before the last Congress went out of business; advocates are seeking a new sponsor to reintroduce it.

Absent a comprehensive law, however, some workers in committed relationships will have to wed out of state to qualify for benefits.

One longtime Navy employee in Hawaii said he has postponed retirement and a return to his home state of New Hampshire for three years in hopes of getting federal health coverage for his same-sex partner, who has “undetectable” HIV. While the partner currently has his own employer-provided health plan, he wants to be assured of coverage after leaving Hawaii, the employee said.

At present, however, the state only recognizes civil unions, although Democratic Gov. Neil Abercrombie supports legalization of same-sex marriage.

“Right now, we’re just kind of waiting” for “full marriage equality,” said the employee, who asked not to be named because he has not come out to his co-workers. He also has not ruled out a trip back to New Hampshire — where same-sex marriage is already legal — to tie the knot.

For Horvath, who was on the steps of the Supreme Court building when the DOMA decision was announced, the quest to get health coverage for his spouse started as soon as they returned from their Massachusetts wedding and brief honeymoon. After being told that Neidich was ineligible, he unsuccessfully appealed to GAO’s chief administrative officer and racked up thousands of dollars in legal bills as he pursued an equally fruitless discrimination complaint.

He wasted no time when he learned of Kaplan’s memo. Although already home for the day, he asked Neidich to drive him through a pounding rainstorm back to GAO, where he filled out the required enrollment form, presented a copy of their marriage certificate and was told that his spouse would be covered two days later.

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