Same-sex partners struggle for health insurance

Filed under: Daily News,Focus,Print | Tags:, ,

Shawna Kemppainen and Lisa Green want what other couples already have: the chance to take care of each other.

Green has multiple sclerosis and is on several expensive medications. Thanks to domestic partner health benefits at Kemppainen’s work, she’s covered by insurance. The two know they’re fortunate.

“We know we’re lucky that my work allows domestic partner benefits — that it wasn’t even a question, not a big deal,” Kemppainen said. “But, at the same time, I’m angry that I have to feel grateful for having what other people take for granted.”

Same-gender partners around the country face the same issue — health care benefits, parental leave issues, adoption policies. And in many work places, access is automatic.

According to the Human Rights Campaign, a national nonprofit that focuses on civil rights for gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender people, about 60 percent of Fortune 500 companies now offer same-gender benefits to their employees.

Colorado and Colorado Springs, however, are lagging behind the rest of the nation. Of the 337 companies that earned the “best place to work” award from the Human Rights Campaign, none is headquartered in the state.

“This is a very conservative, very religious environment — particularly in Colorado Springs,” said Charles Irwin, executive director of the local Pride Center. “It’s not an economic issue; it’s not that companies cannot afford to provide benefits.”

There’s some evidence to support Irwin’s analysis.

Legalizing civil unions and providing health insurance benefits can actually be a financial plus for states. The Williams Institute at UCLA, for example, estimates that Colorado could raise $5 million in additional revenue from legalizing civil unions, mostly from fees and extra taxes.

The Colorado Senate is considering a civil unions bill, which passed the Judiciary Committee earlier this week. But opposition to the bill — and to providing domestic partner benefits — remains centered in conservative religious groups based in Colorado Springs.

“We’re just a little behind here, but this bill will definitely help,” Irwin said. “We’ve seen a shift nationwide, with more companies offering benefits than ever before. It just hasn’t happened here — yet.”

Kemppainen and Green have seen what domestic partner benefits can mean for a couple with medical issues. C.J. Pascoe and her partner have not.

Pascoe, pregnant with twins, has domestic partner benefits from her job at Colorado College. But her partner doesn’t enjoy similar benefits from her own employer. That means the partner doesn’t get time off when the couple’s babies arrive.

But Pascoe is optimistic that times will change.

“I think, in a few years, this isn’t even going to be an issue anymore,” Pascoe said. “Benefits will be offered to everyone, regardless.”

For their part, Kemppainen and Green say all they want is to be treated the way other couples are treated when they’re married.

“We want to have the same hurdles, at the same height, that straight couples have,” Kemppainen said. “It’s not special treatment. It’s the same treatment.”

Kemppainen has some direct experience with negotiating domestic partner benefits. She’s executive director of Inside/Out, an advocacy group for gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender teens. When she started working there, insurance wasn’t available.

“The board understood that insurance benefits are needed to keep employees, to make them feel like they are important,” she said. “So we looked into it and when we talked to the broker we made sure he knew we needed domestic partner benefits. He didn’t even blink. He just said he could do it.”

But Kemppainen knows that isn’t always the case. At another nonprofit, she watched as some board members quit over adding sexual orientation and gender identity to the organization’s anti-discrimination policy.

For Green, benefits from Kemppainen’s employer mean that she can take medicine that keeps her out of a wheelchair, staves off MS-related fatigue and allows her to work as a therapist in private practice.

“It’s bizarre,” she said, “that some people just don’t understand that we’re just like everyone else. We only want to be able to take care of each other.”

And the idea that she should be treated differently makes her angry.

“I am a good citizen — I pay my taxes, I’ve worked since I was 16. I return library books. I do all the things my country says I should do to be a good citizen,” she said. “But my country isn’t living up to its side of the deal. It’s treating me differently, based on who I love.”

For the couple, it’s about more than policy and politics. It’s about being there for each other, particularly through the difficulties of Green’s illness.

“She’s my family,” Kemppainen said. “And I think I should be there, to make decisions about her medical care. If she goes in the hospital next week, and I don’t have exactly the right paperwork in my pocket, then they could keep me from seeing her. Is that fair?”

Couples shut out from employer-based insurance benefits face economic hardships, said Don Klingner, a professor of public administration at the University of Colorado at Colorado Springs.

“As health care and other insurance costs increase, being covered by an employer-sponsored group policy is increasingly important,” he said. “Individual coverage is just too costly and too difficult to obtain.”

And companies are increasingly aware that “plus one” benefits can increase the pool of potential applicants for jobs, he said.

Colorado Springs has seen its share of controversy over “plus one.” In 2002, the City Council voted to extend employee benefits to cover same-gender couples. It lasted less than a year; after a contentious election, a new Council rescinded the measure in 2003.

“Same-sex partner benefits are more complicated in public agencies,” Klingner said. “Some stakeholders frame the issue ideologically rather than economically … even given the negative economic consequences.”

Still, the Pride Center’s Irwin is encouraged by positive news. Nearly all Colorado public employees, except school teachers, receive domestic partner benefits.

The University of Colorado System offers life, health and other insurance benefits to its same-gender couples, as well as their children. It started offering the benefits to faculty in 2002, but only started offering them to classified employees last year.

About 77 people take advantage of the program, costing the university about $322,000 a year to provide insurance benefits to their partners and their children, said Jill Pollack, director of human resources for the University of Colorado System. The system pays a total of $68.7 million for employee insurance.

Pollack testified before the judiciary committee in 2009, as the state was deciding whether to extend domestic partner benefits to all state employees. At the time, she said extending the bill to classified employees would cost an additional $27,000 a year.

Economics aside, Kemppainen believes that adults are sending the teens she works with the wrong message.

“While an issue like health insurance coverage for one’s spouse is not typically high on the radar for these kids … the underlying message we as a society send them when we make decisions … is very powerful,” she said.

“It ends up, for them, being about whether their country, their city, their state respects them as full human beings. We risk young people saying ‘no’ to their own self worth. We are growing all too familiar with the resulting tragedy of that discrimination: loss of hope and loss of life.”

Colorado businesses that offer domestic partner benefits

  • American Airlines
  • Amgen
  • Amplidyne Inc.
  • AT&T Broadband
  • Ball Corp.
  • Bank of America
  • Banner Health
  • Booz Allen Hamilton
  • Boulder Community Hospital
  • Boulder Corp.
  • Center Partners
  • CH2M Hill Co.
  • Chipotle Mexican Grill
  • City of Boulder
  • City of Denver
  • Colorado College
  • Colorado State University
  • Comcast
  • Community Initiatives
  • Conoco-Phillips
  • Copper Mountain Resort
  • Crown Media Holdings
  • Deloitte
  • Delta Airlines
  • Ernst & Young
  • Great West Healthcare
  • Holland & Hart LLP
  • Holme Roberts & Owen
  • HW Home
  • Hyatt
  • IBM
  • ICG Communications
  • ICM Mortgage
  • ING
  • J.P. Morgan Chase
  • Kaiser Permanente
  • KPMG
  • Level 3 Communications
  • Lockheed Martin
  • Medical Center of Centerra
  • Mental Health Corp. of Denver
  • Mercer/Marsh & McLennan
  • MillerCoors
  • Oracle/Sun Microsystems
  • Policy Studies Inc.
  • Poudre Valley Health System
  • PriceWaterhouseCoopers
  • Quark Inc.
  • Qwest Communications
  • Safeway
  • Sage Hospitality Resources
  • SourceOne Healthcare Technologies
  • St. Mary’s Hospital and Regional Medical Center
  • State of Colorado
  • Starwood Hotels
  • Storage Technology Corp.
  • Target
  • Tele-Communications Inc.
  • Thomson Healthcare Inc.
  • Towers Watson
  • United Airlines
  • University of Northern Colorado
  • University of Colorado at Boulder
  • University of Colorado at Colorado Springs
  • University of Colorado at Denver
  • University of Colorado Hospital
  • University of Denver
  • U.S. Bank
  • Verio Inc.
  • Waste Management
  • Wattco Equipment
  • White Wave
  • Xcel Energy

(Source: One Colorado)