COLUMBIA — For the first time, Columbia Public Schools is offering health care benefits to the domestic partners of employees and retirees.
Linda Quinley, the district's chief financial officer and chairwoman of the Employee Benefits Committee, said employees will have coverage starting Jan. 1, when they have to make their first payment toward their health care plan. Enrollment closed Saturday.
The district employs 2,400 people in 36 buildings. Although not everyone qualifies, as of Wednesday, 2,200 were enrolled for health insurance.
Quinley said Thursday that she will not know how many people have requested health care for domestic partner benefits until all the requests have been processed.
"At this point, it doesn’t look like it will be many," she said.
The district spends an average of $17 million annually on claims, Quinley said.
Columbia Public Schools isn't the first major city employer to offer domestic partner benefits. Quinley said she looked at Boone Hospital Center's benefits policy when rewriting the district's policy. The hospital has offered benefits to domestic partners since 2005.
The city of Columbia followed suit in 2007, said Carol Wilson, city benefits manager. And in June, the University of Missouri System Board of Curators approved same-sex domestic partner benefits for university employees.
Sixteen percent of Missouri residents through age 64 are uninsured, according to an Oct. 2 report gathered by the Missouri Hospital Association and used by the district's Employee Benefits Committee. Nearly three out of four of those uninsured are in a working family.
Comparing old, new policies
Quinley said the move will not cost those already in the system more money. All dependents receive the same rates and premiums.
"We are actually not increasing our rates at all this year," Quinley said. "From a cost perspective, (employees with domestic partners) are carrying their weight if they are paying their premium."
The only difference for an employee seeking to add a domestic partner is that he or she must provide additional evidence of a committed relationship, she said.
"They have the burden of proof for letting us know if they have a partner," Quinley said. "I am expecting anywhere from 100 to 200 partners added and partnered children."
"Partnered children" are the children of the domestic partners, similar to a step-child, Quinley said.
Who satisfies the requirements?
Part-time employees who work more than 25 hours, full-time employees and retirees are offered benefits for their spouses. In the new policy, a spouse is defined as a person who is of the opposite or same gender and is legally married to the employee or is a domestic partner of the employee.
"We want our policy to basically treat the partner like how we treat an opposite-sex spouse," Quinley said.
To qualify for benefits, a domestic partner must fulfill the following requirements:
- Live with an employee at least one year in a marriage-like relationship.
- Intend to live together indefinitely.
- Share common necessities of life on an exclusive basis with the employee.
- Be 18, be mentally competent to contract, not be related by blood to each other closer than would bar marriage in Missouri, and not be married to any person or be in a relationship with another person constituting a domestic partnership.
The benefits policy states that in a marriage-like relationship, an employee must be "currently engaged in a committed, exclusive, financially dependent relationship of mutual caring and support and joint responsibility for each other's common welfare."
Documents used to prove the requirements for additional health care can include a shared mortgage or a marriage license from a state that approves same-sex marriage, Quinley said.
Members of Columbia's Domestic Partnership Registry might not be eligible for benefits because the registry only requires a couple to be together for six months, instead of the year required by the public schools, she said.
"The reason we don't accept the Columbia Domestic Partnership Registry is because we can't control how they might choose to change their requirements," Quinley said.
Evolution of the benefits policy
Gov. Jay Nixon issued an executive order on Nov. 14 to let legally married same-sex couples jointly file federal tax returns because of a Supreme Court decision in June. Quinley said the Employee Benefits Committee discussed adding domestic partners before the high court struck down the Defense of Marriage Act.
She and the committee have been working toward adding benefits for domestic partners for three years and made the recommendation to the Columbia School Board in March.
"We needed to do something to help," Quinley said. "If we could have done it earlier than now, I believe (the board) would have done it."
Quinley said she decided to work on the benefits policy this summer because the district was already billing an attorney to make other changes to the policy.
She said that because it is self-insured, the district is exempt from many of the Affordable Care Act laws that will be enacted next year but takes on many of the risks insurance companies often do. She said the past couple of years have been "good insurance years," allowing for better financial planning.
The school board approved the changes to benefits policy on Sept. 9.
Now that enrollment has closed, the district's benefits staff of three is going through the forms to see whether the domestic partners employees requested are eligible for health care coverage. If an employee would like to override a benefits staff member's assessment, he or she may make an appeal to Quinley.
"It's been a learning curve for us," Quinley said.
Quinley said she hopes the new plan can ease the minds of those who are worried about not having a health care plan to fall back on.
"It takes the stress out of (the employees with uninsured partners) so they can focus on work when they are in school," she said.
Supervising editor is Elizabeth Brixey.