Fitzsimmons slams commissioners for failing to study issue
JOHN WRIGHT | Online Editor
The domestic partners of gay and lesbian employees at Parkland hospital will soon have access to health benefits, after the facility’s Board of Managers voted this week to approve a proposal first put forward nearly four years ago.
The Board of Managers voted 6-0, with one member abstaining, to offer DP benefits to gays and lesbians who are among the Parkland Health & Hospital System’s 9,400 employees.
The addition of DP benefits at Parkland, which takes effect Jan. 1, is expected to cost $696,635 in fiscal year 2012. But Dr. Lauren McDonald, who chairs the Board of Managers, said offering the benefits will make the hospital more competitive for workers and improve the quality of care it provides to patients.
“I think if anything it eventually enriches us as opposed to costing us money,” McDonald said after the vote, adding that DP benefits have been “a long time coming.”
In September 2007, McDonald pulled a proposal to add DP benefits from the Board of Managers’ agenda at the last minute, citing opposition from “ultra-right wing, homophobic” board members.
Parkland is Dallas County’s public hospital, and the Board of Managers is appointed by the Commissioners Court, which was then controlled by Republicans.
“We opted at the time not to even bring it up,” McDonald told Dallas Voice in 2008. “If you have a vote that’s negative, you send a message.”
After Democrats took control of the Commissioners Court at the start of this year, several new members were appointed to the seven-person Board of Managers. The new members include Dr. Roberto de la Cruz, who is openly gay and made the motion to approve DP benefits on Tuesday.
“It’s a big day,” de la Cruz said after the vote, adding that he trained as an intern at Parkland in the 1990s. “It’s a personal day for me because I come from here.”
The Board of Managers member who abstained from Tuesday’s vote was Jerry Bryant. “I don’t want to discuss it,” Bryant said when asked the reason for his abstention. Bryant was appointed to the Board of Managers by Republican Commissioner Mike Cantrell earlier this year.
Although Parkland is adding DP benefits in 2012, the Commissioners Court has no plans to do so for Dallas County’s roughly 7,000 employees, County Judge Clay Jenkins confirmed this week.
Jenkins, a Democrat who chairs the Commissioners Court and supports offering DP benefits, said he was “very pleased” with the Parkland vote and had lobbied for the change among appointees to the Board of Managers.
“I think that’s the right thing to do for a variety of reasons,” Jenkins said. “We’ve got to recruit and keep the very best staff, and this is an important component of successfully doing that.”
But Jenkins noted that the county is facing a $35 million budget shortfall this year and already plans to cut $5.6 million in employee health care costs — under a proposal that’s set to be voted on by the Commissioners Court next Tuesday, Aug. 30.
Jenkins said he hopes to look at adding DP benefits next year, when the county’s budget shortfall is expected to be smaller. He added that the Parkland board’s vote will “put the county in a better position to favorably consider doing this.”
“I will use the empirical data that arises from that decision in crafting a plan for the county,” Jenkins said.
District Clerk Gary Fitzsimmons, who’s openly gay, said a plan for the county to offer DP benefits should already have been crafted.
Fitzsimmons said he met with the newly elected members of the Commissioners Court —Jenkins and Dr. Elba Garcia — in January and asked them to initiate a study of the cost of offering DP benefits.
But when Dallas Voice inquired about the status of the DP benefits initiative earlier this month, it became clear that no such study had been conducted. Instead, a county spokeswoman provided the newspaper with “off the-cuff” figures, Fitzsimmons said.
The Commissioners Court voted in April to add sexual orientation and gender identity to the county’s employment nondiscrimination policy. But Fitzsimmons called that move “largely symbolic” and said it has little potential financial impact.
“It’s not enough to expect our elected officials to support equality in the workplace when it doesn’t cost them,” Fitzsimmons said. “They need to support equality in the workplace when it does cost them.”