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Health coverage offered to same-sex partners

Beginning in June, MIT will offer health and dental benefits to the same-sex partners of employees and dependents of partners.

The benefits will be the same as those currently provided for the spouses and dependents of MIT employees, according to Vice President Constantine B. Simonides, who made the announcement.

Mr. Simonides said MIT decided to offer the extended coverage to same-sex partners and the dependents of partners "to address a recognized inequity in access to benefits by gay and lesbian employees who cannot at present include same-sex partners under family coverage options available to married heterosexual partners."

He commended the initiative and leadership of the MIT Working Group's Task Force on Benefits for Domestic Partners for raising and researching the issue, and for preparing a proposal for extended benefits coverage, submitted last summer. This proposal was then evaluated by the MIT Council on the Family and Work, chaired by Professor Jack Kerrebrock. The council's role is to deliberate upon Institute-wide family and work policy and make recommendations on policy changes to the MIT administration. In late December, the council recommended to President Vest that same-sex partners and their dependents be offered health and dental benefits, under the same terms that apply now to family coverage. The staff of the personnel office planned the format and implementation of the new benefit, with assistance from the Institute's legal counsel.

"We also surveyed a number of employers who are currently offering benefits coverage to unmarried partners, including several universities," he said. These included the City of Cambridge, Levi Strauss & Company, the International Data Group, Boston Children's Hospital, the University of Chicago, Stanford University and the University of Iowa.

Benefits offerings, plan enrollment requirements and procedures will be administered for same-sex partners in a manner as parallel as possible with those offered for spouses of employees. For this reason, the term "spousal equivalents" will be used to define same-sex partners who are eligible for benefits coverage.

Health and dental benefits eligibility will not be extended to unmarried opposite-sex couples at this time, Mr. Simonides said. "Because most opposite-sex couples have the option to marry, the issue of access is less compelling," he said. He also referred to opposition by several of MIT's health plan carriers to extending coverage to unmarried opposite-sex partners.

Coverage will not be available to the same-sex partners of current MIT retirees. As active employees retire they will be allowed to continue coverage for their spousal equivalents, or enroll spousal equivalents during their retirements.

Mr. Simonides said that costs to the Institute for spousal equivalent benefits relate primarily to two factors: subsidies paid by MIT for the additional plan members, and the extent to which the claims experience of spousal equivalents and their dependents may impact on the Institute's group claims experience and plan rates in the future.

"The immediate cost to the Institute appears to be very minimal," he said.

Employees who wish to enroll spousal equivalents for coverage will be informed that because no government jurisdiction recognizes same-sex partnerships as the equivalent of marriage, MIT's contribution for the benefits that cover a spousal equivalent will be treated as taxable income to the employee (unless the spousal equivalent qualifies as the employee's tax dependent). Detailed tax information for each of the health plans and dental plan will be provided by the MIT Benefits Office with benefits enrollment materials for spousal equivalents.

There will be a special enrollment period in May during which employees currently enrolled in any of the Institute's health and/or dental plans may add their spousal equivalents and dependents of the spousal equivalents to their plans. Benefits coverage for those enrolling in May will take effect on June 1.

Partners will be eligible for spousal equivalent health and dental benefits if:

  • the partner is at least 18 years of age;
  • the partner is the same sex as the employee;
  • the partner and employee are not married to anyone, and share a mutually exclusive, enduring relationship;
  • the partner and employee have shared a common residence for at least four consecutive months* and intend to do so indefinitely;
  • ������the partner and employee consider themselves life partners, share joint responsibility for their common welfare, and are financially interdependent;
  • ������the partner meets the eligibility requirements for the particular benefits requested.

(* Members of the Harvard Community Health Plan must meet a 12 month common residency requirement, which was a condition mandated by HCHP.)

Roommates, parents and siblings will not be considered eligible.

The employee and the spousal equivalent will be asked to sign an enrollment statement and will be required to provide supporting documentation of eligibility, including proof of four consecutive months of shared residence through such materials as canceled rent checks, utility bills, a joint-tenancy lease, or a jointly held mortgage on their primary residence.

If an employee's relationship with a spousal equivalent ends, the spousal equivalent will be offered coverage continuation options on the same basis as that offered to the former spouses of employees under COBRA.

Twelve months must elapse before an employee may enroll a new spousal equivalent. According to Mr. Simonides, this waiting period between enrolling spousal equivalents addresses a concern expressed by several of the plans that there be a limit to the number of former partners who could be offered continuation coverage benefits.

In enrolling the dependent child or children of a spousal equivalent for benefits coverage, dependent eligibility will be defined in a manner consistent with the current definition of stepchildren in MIT's health- and dental-plan contracts.

A version of this article appeared in the April 28, 1993 issue of MIT Tech Talk (Volume 37, Number 30).

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