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February 20, 2003

Temple to offer same-sex health benefits

Temple University will become Pennsylvania’s first state-related university to offer access to health benefits to its employees’ same-sex domestic partners, under an agreement that applies to unions representing about 2,100 staff, faculty and graduate students.

The agreement, effective April 1, covers about 40 percent of the Philadelphia school’s workforce.

Temple President David Adamany said inequities will exist between the premiums that same-sex and opposite-sex couples will have to pay because of a lack of uniformity among labor contracts, among other reasons. Under Temple’s plan, a same-sex partner will have to pay as much as $440 per month more than an opposite-sex partner to receive similar health coverage.

But Adamany called the agreement a “very good first step” that can be made more fair over time. Offering health benefits to same-sex partners will not require spending state or university funds, he said.

Pitt officials have cited the fear of a backlash from state lawmakers among their reasons for not extending health benefits to same-sex partners here.

Chancellor Mark Nordenberg was expected to comment on Temple’s action during remarks to Pitt’s Board of Trustees today. The meeting is scheduled to begin at 9 a.m. in the William Pitt Union Assembly Room.

Except for a 20-month moratorium that ended last month, the University has since 1996 been defending itself against a discrimination lawsuit by plaintiffs seeking to force Pitt to extend health benefits to its employees’ gay and lesbian partners.

University attorneys have filed a brief asking an Allegheny County Common Pleas Court judge to rule on Pitt’s motion to permanently bar the city from hearing the case.

In interviews, Pennsylvania representatives and senators have given mixed reviews to Temple’s extension of same-sex health benefits. Tom Hickey, a spokesperson for Gov. Ed Rendell, told the University Times: “The governor is certainly supportive of Temple’s action,” having helped to secure same-sex health benefits for city workers in Philadelphia when Rendell was mayor there.

Would Pennsylvania’s new governor support a similar move by Pitt? “I would expect that he would,” Hickey replied.

Robert Hill, Pitt vice chancellor for Public Affairs, said: “Temple’s action came as no surprise to us because there have been regular and ongoing conversations between President Adamany and Chancellor Nordenberg.

“It’s an indication of the kind of agreement that can be reached when the parties are not constrained by litigation,” said Hill.

If the plaintiffs against Pitt dropped their litigation, he added, “it would create a more appropriate climate in which we could work through this issue, although the Commonwealth’s response would still be an issue.”

Christine Biancheria, a volunteer ACLU attorney for the seven current and former Pitt employees suing the University, said: “If the litigation [against Pitt] is in the way, then why didn’t the University administration do the right thing when they had the chance?”

She cited the truce that the two sides agreed to in May 2001: The plaintiffs suspended their lawsuit, while a University committee examined the same-sex health benefits issue. In June 2002, the committee concluded that Pitt eventually should offer the benefits, but that doing so in the face of current state opposition “would not be prudent.” Chancellor Nordenberg concurred, pledging to pursue the issue in cooperation with the leaders of Pennsylvania’s other state-related universities.

Biancheria said, “The University had years to do the right thing, and then the committee process gave them another chance. They can’t finger-point at the litigation after that.”

She bristled at Hill’s suggestion that the Pitt plaintiffs would reject any same-sex health benefits deal as inequitable as Temple’s. “The president of Temple has made a point of saying that his university is committed to making its plan more equitable over time,” Biancheria said. “President Adamany has the moral high ground here. He proved what Pitt’s leadership could do if it had the guts.”

But at least one of the Pitt plaintiffs has criticized Temple’s agreement. “It is NOT a benefit to allow employees to PAY IN FULL for health benefits. It is still discriminatory,” wrote Ray Anne Lockard, the head of Pitt’s Frick Fine Arts Library, to an e-mail list of same-sex benefits proponents. “What Temple has done is as unacceptable as not offering same-sex benefits at all!”

—Bruce Steele

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