Same-sex pairs soon eligible for health benefits

Robey administration announces policy change

`Equity across our work force'

Decision made without County Council input

County grants same-sex benefits

Howard County

May 27, 2004|By Larry Carson | Larry Carson,SUN STAFF

Howard County employees in same-sex domestic partnerships will be eligible for full health benefits, starting July 1, the Robey administration announced yesterday after months of internal deliberation.

Raquel Sanudo, the county's chief administrative officer, said the administration took the action, which will not require County Council scrutiny, as a matter of fairness.

"As an organization, we believe in equity across our work force, when and wherever possible," she said. "This change will afford those employees whose union is not currently, legally recognizable the same health insurance benefits as others currently employed by the county."

Howard County joins Baltimore, Montgomery County, the District of Columbia, Takoma Park and Greenbelt in extending the benefits. Several major universities and large companies, such as the Rouse Co., Lockheed Martin and Marriott International, also offer them.

Robert S. Lazarewicz, Howard's human resources director, said the experience in other places that have made the change shows the cost would be negligible, though he had no firm estimate. Sanudo said several health insurance carriers would not charge more for same-sex-couple benefits.

"It appears about 1 percent would be eligible," Lazarewicz said, meaning about 20 of Howard's 2,000 workers. The new policy would not apply to Howard Community College or county school system employees.

Dale R. Chase, president of the blue-collar American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees, said he does not know any members who might request the benefit. "It's a divisive issue for our membership," he said, adding that he would rather the county do it than wait for a possible court order.

Collette Roberts, co-founder of the Howard chapter of Parents, Families and Friends of Lesbians and Gays (PFLAG), said, "We're very, very pleased.

"We think it's going to be good for business in that people will feel more comfortable in being able to support their families in Howard County. It helps Howard County be more progressive," she said.

Roberts said her group will try to get the school system to follow suit. "It's the right thing to do," she said.

County Councilman Christopher J. Merdon, an Ellicott City Republican, strongly disagreed.

"We've [County Council members] not been briefed on it at all," he said. "To date, I've still not been told what it entails, who is eligible and what was the cost. It's premature to roll out the program."

Merdon also criticized County Executive James N. Robey for not having his name on the news release announcing the policy change.

"If you believe in it, stand up," he said. Merdon's opposition is rooted in the unknown potential cost, he said, although in March he said, "I don't think it's appropriate for county government to be covering nonfamily members."

To qualify, applicants will have to make a declaration of partnership, meaning among other things that they have been in a committed relationship for at least one year, are of the same sex, and confirm that they would marry if that were legal.

The issue arose during the 2002 political campaign, when at a PFLAG forum, Steven H. Adler, the Republican nominee for executive, said he would back same-sex benefits.

Same-sex benefits

Same-sex benefits are offered in nine states and by 140 local governments, agencies and businesses. Locally, they include:

Baltimore

Montgomery County

District of Columbia

Takoma Park

Greenbelt

Maryland National Capital Park and Planning Commission.

The Johns Hopkins University

The Rouse Co.

Lockheed Martin

Marriott International

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