Austin schools to offer insurance benefits to domestic partners

Mar 26, 2013 by

The Austin school district plans to extend health insurance benefits to domestic partners, months after the Pflugerville school district made history by becoming the first in the state to do so.

Beginning Sept. 1, the Austin district will provide insurance benefits to same-sex partners and unmarried heterosexual couples. The additional benefits are expected to cost the district about $600,000.

District officials said they were considering the move in September, before Pflugerville announced it would offer the benefits.

“Regardless of whether we’re first, second or third, it’s just right, and I’m proud we’re moving forward together on it,” said Ken Zarifis, president of the Education Austin employee union, which has about 3,000 members. “It is right that all couples have access to quality health care.”

But even as the two districts begin to offer the coverage, opposition to such efforts is building.

Opponents say the districts — and several cities that have taken similar steps — are defying the Defense of Marriage Act of 2005, which defines marriage in the Texas Constitution as between one man and one woman.

In November, state Sen. Dan Patrick, R-Houston, requested that the Texas attorney general issue an opinion on whether government entities may extend insurance benefits to domestic partners. The attorney general’s decision is due in May.

In December, conservative groups Texas Values and the Alliance Defending Freedom submitted a brief to Texas Attorney General Greg Abbott asking that his office find the Pflugerville district and other government entities in violation of the state constitution.

In February, freshman state Rep. Drew Springer, D-Muenster, filed a bill to cut off health care funding to school districts that allow employees to add a domestic partner to their insurance plans.

The opposition isn’t deterring the Austin district.

Michael Houser, the Austin district’s chief human resources officer, said the administration and each of the four employee groups on the joint insurance committee supported the policy change. It does not require a vote by the Board of Trustees.

“It’s a choice for a school district to determine whether or not they want to expand their insurance coverage to cover domestic partners,” Houser said. “We don’t see any reason at this particular point to interrupt the discussions we’ve had.”

Nearly 200 city and county governments nationwide, including the city of Austin and Travis County, offer domestic partner benefits. Austin voters in 1994 repealed the partner benefits that had been approved the year before by the City Council. However, in 2006, voters reinstated them.

Multiple districts in California also offer benefits to domestic partners, as do the districts in Anchorage, Alaska, and Los Alamos, N.M.

Chuck Smith, executive director of Equality Texas, a gay rights advocacy group, had expected Pflugerville’s decision to be an impetus for other districts to do the same.

On Thursday, he applauded Austin.

“It’s great news,” Smith said. However, he cautioned the district to word the extension of the benefits carefully so it complies with state law. “There certainly are ways to craft these benefit plans to where they conform to the existing restrictions.”

Under current prices, the Austin district would charge employees who want to cover a domestic partner from $492 to $704 a month, the same as for a spouse. The district has 12,000 employees and expects 300 to 350 people to be added to its insurance plan under the new policy; that is estimated to cost an additional $600,000 a year in premiums.

For the current school year, the district budgeted $52.3 million for its employee insurance program.

via Austin schools to offer insurance benefits to domestic partners | www.statesman.com.

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