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May 15, 2003

Legislators quiet on issue of same-sex partner health benefits

The issue of Pennsylvania state-related universities extending health benefits to their employees’ same-sex partners conspicuously did not come up during the House appropriations committee hearing May 2 in West Chester, Pa.

On April 1, Temple University became Pennsylvania’s first state-related school to offer access to health benefits to employees’ same-sex partners.

Some people in Harrisburg and the higher education community wondered whether lawmakers opposed to domestic partner benefits would attempt to punish Temple and threaten other universities not to follow Temple’s example.

But Temple President David Adamany told the University Times following the May 2 hearing: “I have not been contacted by any member of the legislature about this matter.”

Paul A. Supowitz, Pitt director of Commonwealth, City and County Relations, said no Pennsylvania lawmaker has mentioned the same-sex benefits issue to him, either.

Supowitz suggested: “There’s been so much going on with this year’s budget that [legislators] have been kind of preoccupied, is probably the bottom line.”

Rep. Dan B. Frankel, D-Allegheny Co., said he’s heard nothing from his colleagues recently about universities’ policies on same-sex benefits.

“I thought Temple’s president might get a question about that today, but obviously the subject never came up,” Frankel said after the May 2 hearing. “I think the environment has changed, primarily because Gov. Ed Rendell is not about to curry any discussion about penalizing a university for providing domestic partner benefits.”

Rendell supported same-sex domestic partner benefits when he was mayor of Philadelphia, and has said he would support any Pennsylvania university that felt it needed to begin offering such benefits to remain competitive.

“Several years ago,” Frankel recalled, “the House passed a bill that would have eliminated state appropriations entirely from any state-related universities that provided domestic partner benefits. That bill luckily didn’t go anywhere in the Senate.

“Today, if you had a legislative movement to do something like that and it did pass in the Senate, I think the governor would veto it and there would not be enough votes in the House to override his veto.”

Temple’s agreement to offer health benefits to domestic partners resulted from negotiations with unions representing some 2,100 unionized white-collar employees and graduate students, about 40 percent of Temple’s workforce.

Temple pays health insurance premiums for some heterosexual employees’ partners if the couples meet Pennsylvania’s common-law marriage provisions, but same-sex couples (who do not, by definition, meet the provisions) must pay the premiums themselves.

Arguing that Temple’s granting of limited health benefits to same-sex couples provides “a most welcome opportunity” for Pennsylvania universities to join together in offering full same-sex domestic partner benefits, 93 law professors from Pitt, Penn State and Temple recently sent a letter to the universities’ presidents, urging them to “exert moral leadership on this issue.” See letter.

Pitt administrators say the University continues to be guided by the recommendations of a Pitt committee that studied the same-sex benefits issue and released a report last June.

The committee concluded that Pitt eventually should join the growing number of employers offering such benefits, but that doing so in the face of state opposition would not be prudent. Pitt should work with Temple, Penn State and Lincoln universities in lobbying Harrisburg lawmakers to drop their opposition to same-sex benefits, the committee recommended.

Unlike Temple, Pitt’s administration points out, Pitt is defending itself against a discrimination lawsuit seeking to force the University to extend health benefits to its employees’ gay and lesbian partners.Both sides are waiting for Allegheny County Common Pleas Court Judge Robert Gallo to rule on Pitt’s request to permanently ban the city’s Human Relations Commission from hearing the case.Two years ago, Gallo ruled that Pitt’s health insurance policy does not discriminate against gays and lesbians.

—Bruce Steele

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