When Melissa Stevens, 25, starts looking for a job after completing medical school and her residency, Boone Hospital Center will be at the top of her list — and it’s all because she found out this week that health benefits will be extended to same-sex domestic partners.
For now, she is covered by a student health plan, and her partner, Erica Hutcherson, 35, is covered by her employer’s plan. But when the couple talks about starting a family or Hutcherson going back to school, health insurance coverage that includes both of them becomes a priority.
“We heard about Boone Hospital and discussed it,” Stevens said. “I am interested in applying there because of that.”
Boone Hospital, part of the BJC HealthCare network, announced to employees through company newsletters and in its 2005 benefits packet that same-sex domestic partners will be covered next year.
The change came after months of re-evaluating the benefits package by focus groups and senior leadership, said June Fowler, a BJC spokeswoman in St. Louis.
“We are constantly looking at our total benefits package against other health systems and large employers,” she said.
Lynn Hostetler, spokesman for Boone Hospital, said the change could help the hospital recruit and retain employees. “Benefits are important to people, and it’s important that we are competitive,” he said.
“We wouldn’t want to lose a great employee because these benefits are not offered,” Fowler said.
BJC HealthCare employs over 26,000 people in 13 hospitals in Missouri and Illinois. Boone Hospital is the third-largest employer in Columbia, with more than 2,000 employees.
Employee health insurance is self-funded by the company rather than through an outside agency. Fowler said the extra costs were expected to be minimal and no different than enhancing any other type of benefit. The company expects the percentage of employees who take advantage of the option to be less than or equal to the percentage of the population that is in a same-sex domestic relationship, she said.
The coverage specifies that the plan only extends to same-sex domestic partners. Opposite-sex domestic partners have the option to marry, while same-sex partners do not, Fowler said. The human resources department has a specific set of requirements for employees to show they are domestic partners in a committed relationship.
Columbia’s biggest employers, MU and MU Healthcare — including University Hospital, Ellis Fischel Cancer Center and Columbia Regional Hospital — do not offer benefits to domestic partners, MU spokesman Joe Moore said.
“The Board of Curators has never addressed or discussed that topic to my knowledge,” Moore said.
Columbia College President Gerald Brouder decided in August not to extend health benefits to same-sex domestic partners at his institution after the proposal was brought by faculty.
Nationwide, there was an 18 percent increase in companies offering same-sex benefits in both 2002 and 2003, according to a study released by the Human Rights Campaign. Forty percent of Fortune 500 companies now provide domestic-partner benefits. Among colleges, 31 of the 50 top national four-year colleges provided domestic-partner coverage at the end of 2003.
Missouri residents overwhelmingly passed a ban on gay marriage in August, but there is no connection between the marriage issue and same-sex health benefits, Fowler said.
“Focus groups started meeting long before (the gay marriage ban) ever came up,” she said.
The changes to the health-benefits package were presented to focus groups, made up of employees across the BJC Hospital System, for evaluation and response.
“It wasn’t a decision made in a vacuum,” Hostetler said.
Hostetler said the hospital’s human resources department has so far received very few calls from employees about the change.