April 20--The city of Eau Claire is looking at the possibility of expanding its health insurance benefits to the partners of its lesbian and gay employees.
On Tuesday the City Council will see a proposal that would allow domestic partnerships to qualify for family health insurance plans when enrollment is opened this summer.
Councilman Andrew Werthmann authored the resolution, saying extending benefits to same-sex couples is a nationwide trend and it would impact city workers.
"With all these things there's a growing movement," he said.
When Detective Clay Wanta of the city's Police Department told Werthmann the city doesn't offer domestic partnership health insurance eligibility, the councilman said he was surprised.
A 12-year veteran with the ECPD, Wanta has seen benefits his married co-workers were eligible for but he is not.
Wanta has been in a relationship for the past three years with Pete Brandt, but the couple waited until last year to make it legally official by registering their domestic partnership.
"It's just like any other relationship -- you don't meet them and get married right away," Wanta said.
The city's insurance plan is a little better than Brandt's policy, but Wanta said the main interest in offering health insurance to same-sex couples is about getting the same benefits as heterosexual city workers.
"It should be no different because of being a gay couple or straight couple," he said. "It comes down to what's fair and right."
Wanta raised the issue to city officials late last year, and staff have been working recently on a policy and analysis.
But at least one councilman said the timing of the proposed change seems sudden.
"I don't know why this has to be done right now," council Vice President Dave Duax said. "This is governance by moving things along very quickly."
Cost impacts, details on the insurance plans and comparisons with other Wisconsin governments were provided Thursday night to council members. They can vote on expanding insurance coverage to same-sex couples at Tuesday afternoon's meeting.
A city memo notes that a family plan costs the city $8,617 more per year than a single employee's health insurance coverage.
"Yes, it will cost more, and that's part of the discussion," Werthmann said. "The other part of the discussion is the fairness aspect."
It's difficult to tell how many employees would be impacted by the potential change, but Werthmann estimates it would be less than a dozen.
"It's worth noting that in a year we have that same number coming and going in the plan anyway," he said.
From retirements, people getting married and new employees hired when others leave, Werthmann said the city's health insurance is constantly dealing with changes.
While Duax said the city needs to consider expanding benefits, he said it could instead be part of contract talks with the city's insurance provider next year.
"Yes, I think we need to take a look at it, but I expected this to come up when we renewed our health insurance contracts next year," he said. "Normally you do these things when you're trying to set up the criteria of your new plan."
In addition to cost impacts for the city, Duax said it could have a bearing on the Eau Claire school district and county government health insurance plans, which currently don't offer same-sex family plans.
However, other local units of government in Wisconsin have extended benefits to same-sex couples.
"We're not re-creating the wheel by any stretch of the imagination," Werthmann said.
He added that the city's current insurance provider -- Group Health Cooperative of Eau Claire -- has developed plans with other workplaces that cover domestic partnerships.
The city policy will require that couples be on the domestic partnership registry, which was created by the state government in summer 2009 but is being appealed in court.
Dowd can be reached at 715-833-9204, 800-236-7077 or [email protected].
(c)2012 the Leader-Telegram (Eau Claire, Wis.)
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