UM decision on domestic-partner benefits draws praise, further questions

Monday, June 17, 2013 | 7:56 p.m. CDT; updated 8:52 p.m. CDT, Monday, June 17, 2013

COLUMBIA — MU biology professor Candace Galen estimates she has spent about a year of her salary on her partner’s health insurance in the 15 years she has been in the relationship.

If she were married to a man, he could have shared in her employee benefits through the UM System. Because her partner is a woman, she had to seek insurance elsewhere.

"I know couples who have been at the university who are essentially married in all but Missouri law, who have been together longer than us, and who have paid the same kind of financial price,” Galen said.

That all changed Thursday, when the Board of Curators voted unanimously to add “sponsored adult dependents” as a new category of people eligible for employee benefits.

Galen was present for the curators' vote. She attended the meeting with colleagues from the University of Missouri, St. Louis.

“I have been fighting this fight since 1990 when I arrived at MU,” Galen said. “I have colleagues at UMSL who have been working for this change for 10 years before that.”

For the first time, same-sex partners of UM System employees can share in employees’ medical, dental, vision, life, accidental death and dismemberment insurance if they meet certain criteria.

State climatologist Pat Guinan said the change offers him and his partner more options.

"Even though my partner currently works for the state, if he decides to make a career change or go back to school, he has the opportunity to be a part of my health benefits plan,” Guinan said.

Guinan also praised the decision from a moral perspective.

"The implementation is also an acknowledgement of my 12-year relationship with my partner and treating it equitably with other employees and their spouses," he said.

"For a university whose principle values include respect, responsibility, discovery and excellence, as well as being an institution that embraces diversity, implementing same-sex benefits is proof of not only talking the talk but walking the walk."

The policy will still require a close look to ensure equality between same-sex couples and heterosexual couples, Galen said. 

"We still need to look carefully at the wording of that policy to make sure the wording is consistent with the spirit that there should be equality between the two," Galen said.

To be eligible for employee benefits, sponsored adult dependents must:

  • Have had the same principal residence as the employee or retired employee for at least 12 months and continue to have the same principal residence as the employee or retired employee, disregarding temporary absences due to special circumstances including illness, education, business, vacation or military service.
  • Be 18 years of age or older.
  • Not be currently married to another person under either statutory or common law.
  • Not be related to the employee or retired employee by blood or a degree of closeness that would prohibit marriage in the law of the state in which the employee or retired employee resides.
  • Not be eligible for Medicare.

Galen mentioned the exception for Medicare recipients as an example of inequality under the new policy.

“For faculty who are nearing retirement, the Medicare exclusion, I do not believe that applies to married couples, and I think that’s something that will probably need to be revisited,” Galen said.

Biomedical sciences professor Leona Rubin said changing policy and the system’s collected rules and regulations will take time to implement, especially when the system’s human resources department is also dealing with changes to employee benefits associated with the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act.

Rubin has been on the UM System’s Retirement and Staff Benefits Committee for about three years. The committee, which includes faculty and staff from all four campuses, advises the system’s human resources department.

“Much of that time investment required first that the board approve the changes,” Rubin said. “Now HR and the RSB Committee can begin the work of hammering out the details in wording and creating an FAQ.”

Rubin said during the time she has served on the committee, faculty councils at all four UM campuses asked for a resolution from curators on employee benefits for domestic partners.

"Most of the time it was not considered further because of financial reasons,” Rubin said.

She said a turning point came after the Intercampus Faculty Council drafted a report in 2012 making a business case for allowing same-sex partner benefits.

The report contains comparisons with other universities that offered benefits for domestic partners. It also contains lists of faculty and administrative hires in the UM System that fell through because the university did not offer such benefits.

"It really got a much more favorable look when we presented all of the evidence about lost hires and being competitive in the marketplace,” Rubin said. “Sadly enough, it was less about the moral imperative than the financial benefits."

Supervising editor is Jake Kreinberg.

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