County to extend health benefits

By Warren Cornwall

Herald Writer

Unmarried gay and heterosexual Snohomish County government workers will soon be able to get the same health insurance for their partners as married couples.

The policy, part of a new three-year contract with a union representing 2,000 county employees, extends benefits previously granted only to married couples.

The county joins the ranks of other large employers that have recently added "domestic partner" benefits. It’s one of a handful of governments in Washington to do so.

Such policies have been welcomed by gay-rights advocates, who say it’s equal treatment for same-sex couples barred from getting married and helps employers attract and keep workers.

But the benefits have proven controversial at times, riling conservatives who say it sanctions same-sex relationships.

The Snohomish County Council approved the new labor contract Nov. 7 in a 4-1 vote.

"I think it’s becoming common in a lot of jurisdictions, and it’s sort of an equity, fairness issue," said Dave Somers, county council chairman.

Gary Nelson, the council’s only Republican at the time, raised the only questions about the benefits before the council vote. He said he was concerned it would commit the county to costly new benefits at a time when the economy is worsening.

The extended benefits would increase county costs roughly $50,000 a year for health coverage, said Roger Neumaier, executive office administrator for county executive Bob Drewel.

It’s part of an overall benefit package that will hold county health care costs for union employees to a half-percent increase in 2002 and an estimated 6 percent increase in 2003, Neumaier said.

Randi Ouri, who works for the county’s Public Works Department, welcomed the benefits both as a political breakthrough and a safety net for her and her partner.

"I was pleasantly surprised to see that they were willing to step up to the plate and walk the talk," she said of the council.

Ouri said her female partner of 11 years has health benefits elsewhere. Several years ago, Ouri used similar benefits at King County, when she worked there, after her partner was laid off.

She currently can’t get health insurance for her partner through the county, unlike married co-workers. She had urged negotiators for the union, the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees, to push for the new program.

"It’s not about special benefits," she said. "It’s about equal benefits."

Large governments and corporations have increasingly extended benefits to domestic partners, partly to help keep and attract workers, said Aaron Pollock, a benefits consultant in the Seattle office of Marsh Inc., a national insurance consulting firm. He has advised Snohomish County on its benefits package.

Washington companies offering domestic partner benefits include Boeing and Microsoft, according to a 2001 report from the Human Rights Campaign, a gay and lesbian-rights organization.

But the benefits have proven controversial, particularly for government agencies using taxpayer money, Pollock said.

"They do have concerns about what that says and whether they are condoning a particular lifestyle. And that does tend to be a political issue," he said.

The Washington Supreme Court in August upheld the city of Vancouver’s domestic partner benefits, rejecting a claim by a city resident that the policy created a marriagelike relationship. State law prohibits same-sex marriages.

In Washington, governments offering domestic partner benefits include the state, King County and the cities of Seattle, Vancouver and Olympia. Some other counties offer benefits only to same-sex couples. A number of local governments and school districts also offer domestic partner benefits because they purchase coverage through the state.

In Snohomish County, the Snohomish County Public Utility District offers benefits to domestic partners, as do several small taxing districts with the state benefits program. There are no other local governments now offering it, according to a Human Rights Campaign list.

With the new program starting Jan. 1, Snohomish County officials are still not sure how they will ask people to show someone is a domestic partner. Nor do they have a clear definition of who will qualify, said Dave Ellgen, an analyst in the Human Resources Department. He said they are looking to programs in other governments for guidance.

You can call Herald Writer Warren Cornwall at 425-339-3463 or send e-mail to cornwall@heraldnet.com.

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