Summit County Council is looking at legislation that will make sure the same health insurance benefits provided to spouses is available for domestic partners and their children.
“Given the position the county has taken on prohibiting discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation and gender equality, we do not believe it would be consistent for us to continue to not provide these type of health insurance benefits to domestic partners and they should be treated on the same basis as we do spouses,” said Jason Dodson, chief of staff for County Executive Russ Pry.
A lively discussion at Monday night’s Personnel Committee meeting was politically divided over support of the benefits.
Dodson noted the evolving policies both nationally and locally have called for basic fairness and equality. Sick leave, bereavement and FMLA (Family and Medical Leave Act) are already on the books for domestic partners with the county.
“We’ve done some research on not only public employees but private employees, and we found that in the marketplace this is a benefit that is being offered by many of those employers,” Dodson said. “It is imperative that the county maintain its ability to compete for and retain competent employees.”
He said currently 422 Fortune 1,000 companies offer health insurance benefits for domestic partners, including Walmart, the nation’s largest private employer.
According to the county’s research, 21 of the 50 states offer benefits to domestic partners. Locally, some of the largest public employers include Kent State University, Cuyahoga County, the city of Cleveland, Cuyahoga Community College and Franklin County.
He said in recent months, both the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees bargaining unit representing the county’s Fiscal Office and Summit County Public Health’s Health Equity Committee have asked for the inclusion of domestic partner benefits.
In order to receive benefits, both the employee and domestic partner must meet several requirements. They include: residing at the same address and having a joint mortgage, joint lease or driver’s license with the same address; are in an exclusive relationship; neither is legally married or legally separated from another person; each share responsibility for the other’s common welfare; are at least 18 years of age, mentally competent and not related to the other to a degree that would prohibit marriage. Both will have to sign an affidavit that these things are true and must notify the county if there are any changes.
“By requiring an affidavit there are criminal penalties for lying,” Dodson said. “It’s not simply a form an employee can fill out and lie on it.”
There are about 2,400 employees on the county’s health plan.
Dodson said based on research the county’s potential cost would not be significant.
“The health insurance budget is about $31 million. The health insurance consultant has estimated it would cost the county about $40,000 to $80,000 to include the benefits, which is consistent with other entities, offering these same benefits.”
District 3 Councilwoman Gloria Rodgers, a Republican, wanted to know if the county had any numbers on who would apply for the benefits and whether any unions had given any number projections.
“I would feel more comfortable if we wait on the legislation considering Obama Care. The Affordable Care Act starts Oct. 1 and anyone can go out and purchase insurance affordably,” she said. “I have a problem with us devaluing marriage … We have a lot of issues going on socially, and I think we as a governmental agency have to be careful in what we do and the stands we take so that we enforce those values that young people need to have.”
Councilwoman at-large Sandra Kurt, a Democrat, said getting numbers would be hard because some people don’t want to be identified publicly. She added that just because the option is available doesn’t mean everyone who has a domestic partner will automatically sign up for it.
“And if we are going to talk about it being a moral issue … ” Kurt said, adding that she didn’t bring it up first. “Instead of looking at it as devaluing marriage, you can look at it as valuing families and strengthening the family unit, and where marriage is not an option this provides some sort of security — health wise and financially to the family unit.”
District 4 Councilman Frank Comunale, a Democrat who chairs the Personnel Committee, cited cases including Brown vs. the Board of Education in 1954 saying “they got it right ... a diverse society where tolerance and human dignity is so crucial if there is an incremental cost. It’s imperative as government that we have a responsibility to take care of it ... it’s not about marriage, but respect of the individual.”
The council is expected to vote on the proposal next Monday.
Marilyn Miller can be reached at 330-996-3098 or firstname.lastname@example.org.