DART’s benefit plan was ‘long time coming’

Posted on 11 Oct 2013 at 9:00am

Advocates praise agency for passing healthcare equalization after more than a year of discussion, delays and stunts meant to derail the plan

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BACK ON TRACK | Resource Center’s Rafael McDonnell, second from right, talks to members of the LGBT community at DART headquarters about the healthcare benefit victory after the final board approval on Tuesday, Oct. 8. The benefits will go into effect on Jan. 1, 2014. (David Taffet/Dallas Voice)

 

DAVID TAFFET | Staff Writer

After more than a year of discussions and delays, stalling tactics and rewording to avoid a challenge by the state attorney general, the Dallas Area Rapid Transit board passed domestic partner health benefits this week without further discussion.

Coverage is expected to cost DART $67,000 out of a total healthcare budget of more than $34 million. And in order to comply with an opinion from Texas Attorney General Greg Abbott, the so-called plus-one plan allows any DART employee to insure one adult living in the same household with commingled financial interests, rather than the original committee-approved plan to cover just same- and opposite-sex partners. Benefits take effect Jan. 1, 2014.

Minutes into the Oct. 8 meeting, DART chairman John Danish called for a motion to pass healthcare equalization.

Dallas DART board representative Jerry Christian made the motion. The resolution passed 10 in favor and three opposed. And without discussion, the board moved on to the next agenda item. Two board members were absent.

Members of the LGBT community who had been attending DART meetings for more than a year were surprised the plan passed so easily after members walked out and broke quorum two weeks ago before the vote.

After all items on the agenda passed, Danish opened the floor for comments.

The first speaker was former City Council candidate Richard Sheridan who came to oppose DP benefits and said he understood the proposal had not passed. When corrected, he began talking about alternative, unapproved treatments for AIDS.

Stonewall Democrats of Dallas President Omar Narvaez was the first to speak on behalf of the LGBT community. He thanked the board for passing the new policy.

He called it “the most examined issue in DART history.” That included the contentious debate over adding gender identity and expression to the nondiscrimination policy.

In 2010, DART added gender identity and expression after three months of discussion, which included a controversial amendment that would have gutted the proposal. With members of the LGBT community packing the DART board chamber, that amendment was removed at a June board meeting and approved unanimously. Sexual orientation had been part of the policy since 1995.

Fairness Fort Worth President David Mack Henderson also thanked the board for the healthcare plan vote.

“We’ve been watching with keen regional interest,” he said.

The Fort Worth transit system, The T, doesn’t offer partner benefits yet. He said he expected the Tarrant County agency to take note of DART’s vote.

“Everyone who loves someone hopes to keep them safe and healthy,” Henderson said. “The public benefits from this policy.”

Trans activist Nell Gaither thanked the board for finally adhering to its own nondiscrimination policy. She said she’d be back to discuss trans health coverage issues.

Rafael McDonnell with Resource Center has attended every board and committee meeting at which the issue was discussed. He also arranged speakers to come to board meetings to appeal for passage of the healthcare coverage.

Many on the board laughed as McDonnell rapidly ticked off a list of ministers, rabbis, former City Council members and representatives of more than 20 LGBT organizations who spoke over the past year.

“It’s been a long time coming,” McDonnell said. “We were concerned we’d never make it to this point.”

The fight for domestic partner benefits began in July 2012 when Andrew Moss, a former DART police officer, asked the agency to allow him to receive benefits through his husband, who is a current DART employee.

Moss and his husband were legally married in California in 2008. Moss is unable to work because of illness and was unable to attend the meeting for the final DART vote.

“My husband goes to work and risks his life for DART and should get the same benefits that his counterparts of a different sexual orientation get,” Moss previously told Dallas Voice.

He did not return calls seeking comment on the plan’s passage.

In March, the committee-of-the-whole voted to delay any further discussion of a plan approved by the administrative committee until after the U.S. Supreme Court ruled on two marriage-equality cases, which were unrelated to domestic partner benefits.

At the next board meeting, McDonnell scheduled several speakers to ask the board to pass healthcare benefits. That continued at the biweekly meetings through September.

After the Supreme Court ruled, the board considered a revised plan called plus-one to avoid a challenge by Attorney General Greg Abbott. He claims DP benefits treat same-sex couples as married and violate the constitutional amendment prohibiting marriage.

Passage of the plan stalled during the summer but passed the committee-of-the-whole on Sept. 10.

When the proposal came to the full board on Sept. 24, DART board members Michael Cheney and Randall Chrisman walked out before the scheduled vote. Their absence broke quorum, preventing approval.

This week, both board members voted against the policy along with Marc Enoch, who was absent at the last meeting.

Both Cheney and Enoch represent Garland.

At a Garland City Council meeting on Oct. 2, Mayor Douglas Athas spoke with an LGBT group who addressed the council. He said his objection and that of the Garland DART board members had to do with the broad wording of the plus-one plan that would allow more than same-sex partners to be added.

“Our board members are the most frugal,” Athas said.

The plus-one plan allows an employee to put another adult living in the household on the healthcare plan. DART estimates 12 to 19 people will take advantage of the plan, costing the agency $67,000. In 2012, the net cost of healthcare was $34.5 million.

The one-month open enrollment period for next year has already begun. Employees who want to enroll must produce documentation proving financial commingling and domestic cohabitation. A valid marriage license is not one of the documents that will be accepted.

Although approval of the plan came in October after open enrollment began, DART Deputy Executive Director Jessie Oliver said plus-one participants would still be given the standard 30 days to enroll.

“Upon approval by the board, an extended open enrollment period will be established,” Oliver said.

Also this week, four new DART officers were elected to serve during the upcoming year. Current DART Chairman John Danish is leaving because he was elected to the Irving City Council.

Robert Strauss, a Dallas representative, is the new chair. Faye Moses Wilkins of Plano and Farmers Branch was elected vice chair. Richard Carrizales of Dallas was elected secretary. Gary Slagel of Richardson, Addison and Highland Park was elected assistant secretary. All of the new officers supported the plus-one plan.

This article appeared in the Dallas Voice print edition October 11,, 2013.

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