LGBT advocates say they’ll continue to push for full insurance equality after Dallas County approves health subsidies for domestic partners
LGBT advocates rejoiced this week when Dallas County commissioners approved a subsidy program for domestic partners of county employees, but some said the fight for full insurance equality isn’t over.
Commissioners approved the plan on party lines, with Democrats Clay Jenkins, John Wiley Price and Elba Garcia voting in favor, and Republicans Maurine Dickey and Mike Cantrell opposing it.
The plan covers opposite- and same-sex partners who are 18 and don’t have access to healthcare through their employer. They must also sign a domestic partner affidavit and provide two documents proving that they have lived together for at least six months.
Effective Jan. 1, partners who have purchased private insurance will be eligible for the subsidy. The county will reimburse employees for 45 percent of their partners’ insurance or up to $295.78 monthly — the amount the county contributes toward employees’ coverage — whichever is less.
Ken Upton, senior staff attorney in Lambda Legal’s Dallas office, said the county’s plan is good for people who have no other access to healthcare, but it’s difficult to find insurance if someone has a pre-existing condition or can’t afford a private plan even with the subsidy.
“The problem with the voucher is that it puts you on the open market for private insurance,” he said, adding that until the Affordable Care Act is fully implemented in 2014, insurance companies can refuse to cover someone with a pre-existing condition. “And the voucher’s not worth anything if you can’t find insurance, so it’s certainly not a substitute for being able to be added as a dependent on an employer’s plan.”
Upton also noted that the subsidy will be taxed because the Defense of Marriage Act prohibits the IRS from recognizing same-sex couples. He said some companies who offer DP benefits will pay same-sex couples more to offset the taxes. Dallas County is not doing that.
But Upton added that with all the obstacles commissioners faced, they should still get credit for making the plan happen, even if it can be improved in the future.
“If that was the only route they had, the people who voted for it should be commended for finding a way to make something available,” he said. “I think it’s a good business acknowledgement for the government. I think they do deserve a lot of credit. It’s a step forward that they should be commended for. We’re not there yet, but it’s a great step.”
Jenkins and Garcia originally wanted to offer the benefits through the Public Employee Benefits Cooperative, a multi-county partner agency, but Denton and Tarrant counties were against it. Because the county is part of the co-op, every member has to offer the same healthcare options to keep costs down, so Denton, Tarrant and Parker counties, and the PEBC’s other members, would have also had to add the benefits if they were approved.
Planning then began on a plan outside of the co-op, which led to the subsidy option. Garcia said the plan was the only way to offer DP benefits without going through the PEBC.
Garcia said she was happy the plan passed because of the hard work put into finding a solution. She said she got around 200 emails in support of the county offering DP benefits when the planning began in August and about 15 against the endeavor.
“I think the court showed that this was an issue about equality and justice for all our employees,” she sad. “I think it puts Dallas County in the position of competing.”
Jenkins said commissioners will be evaluating the pros and cons of remaining in the PEBC and looking at insurance rates from other potential providers. Commissioners would have to vote to leave the PEBC and approve a new provider.
But Jenkins said there are certain dates that PEBC members have to follow to leave the co-op, and those who are leaving must give a year’s notice.
So, the earliest Dallas County could start offering employees and their domestic partners full coverage would be some time in 2014.
“My guess is, based on the past and public statements made, that people would like to see a uniform policy that, if we could do so, where our domestic partners are fully covered to the extent of all other family members,” Jenkins said.
Lesbian activist Cd Kirven spoke at Commissioners Court on Oct. 23 to encourage commissioners to approve the plan. Prior to that, she called Price to speak to him about supporting the measure.
Commissioner Dickey interrupted the meeting after a speaker finished addressing the court on Oct. 30 to request that a man stop taking pictures of her. Kirven was the one taking pictures of the speaker.
Commissioner Price continued to correct Dickey’s reference to Kirven as a he, and Kirven stood up and clarified that she was taking pictures of the speaker, not Dickey, and apologized.
Kirven said the incident “baffled” her because Dickey knew from the week before when she spoke that she was a woman. She said Dickey made a comment the week before when she was speaking to Price before the meeting.
Dickey asked what she was doing but referred to her as a he, interrupting her and Price’s conversation. She said she told Dickey that she was a she, but Price told her to ignore Dickey and they continued their conversation.
Kirven said she thinks Dickey’s lack of respect for continuing to refer to her as a man calls her professionalism as a public figure into question and she offered to schedule sensitivity training with the Resource Center Dallas if Dickey reached out to her. She said she doubts the commissioner will take her up on the offer.
“I don’t want her odd behavior to overshadow our huge win in getting all families included in Dallas County as part of health benefits,” Kirven said.
She said that while LGBT organizations helped commissioners with the plan, negotiations will continue to explore other options in the upcoming year to make the plan more equal, such as leaving the PEBC.
“I think it’s a good beginning,” she said. “There are plans to review whether they should stay in the co-op. They are reviewing all outside options for next year to make it completely inclusive. Dallas County is committed to equality.”
Kirven said she thinks the county should leave the co-op if a better healthcare company can be found with comparable benefits to what employees are now receiving.
“They (the PEBC) are dead set against inclusively,” she said. “I think [the county] will leave because they want to be more inclusive.”
Rafael McDonnell, communications and advocacy manager at Resource Center Dallas, helped give the commissioners data on counties and cities across the nation that offer DP benefits.
He said he was impressed with the commissioners being able to approve a plan in a few months, and the county now has a year where domestic partners will be covered to consider its options of making the benefits more equal.
“This is giving them time to negotiate with insurance companies to see if they can find a better deal outside of the PEBC,” he said. “Given the time frame it’s what we were able to do right now.”
Watch video of the exchange between Commissioner Maurine Dickey and activist Cd Kirven at TinyURL.com/c6sfocc.
This article appeared in the Dallas Voice print edition November 2, 2012.