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May 16, 2002

Same-sex partner health benefits inevitable, committee says, but urges University not to offer them now

Eventually, the University should offer medical benefits to its employees' same-sex partners — but doing so now "would not be prudent," Pitt's special committee on domestic partner health insurance benefits has advised.

After 10 months of study, the committee concluded in a report to Chancellor Mark Nordenberg that "there is no simple solution" to the same-sex benefits issue. Pitt released the report to the public on May 9.

"The prospect of a harmful confrontation with the [Pennsylvania] Legislature, coupled with a substantial financial penalty if the University reopens the negotiation of its health insurance contract before it expires in 2003, are two compelling factors," the report stated. "Another is the well-grounded fear that unilateral action by this University, unless carefully coordinated, could actually result in legislation that would preclude the offering of such benefits by all state-related institutions."

According to the committee, the most appropriate time for Pitt to reconsider its policy on same-sex benefits would be after a new governor is inaugurated and a new legislative session has begun, and as Pitt renegotiates a new health insurance contract. Pitt's current contract with UPMC Health Plan runs through June 2003.

In the meantime, committee members wrote, Pitt should work with Pennsylvania's other state-related universities (Penn State, Temple and Lincoln) "and other interested parties" toward a common solution that "would mitigate the risk to the University's good standing with our elected officials."

Chancellor Nordenberg has not indicated when, or how, he will respond to the report's recommendations. He charged the special committee last May, after seven current and former employees agreed to temporarily suspend their lawsuit alleging that Pitt discriminates by denying health benefits to employees' same-sex partners.

The lawsuit initially was filed in 1996 by Deborah Henson, a former Pitt legal writing instructor. Henson charged that Pitt's denial of same-sex benefits violated a city ordinance prohibiting discrimination based on sexual orientation. Six other employees later joined the suit.

q Reactions among the plaintiffs and their lawyers to the special committee's report ranged from disappointment to disgust.

"This document is morally bankrupt," said Witold Walczak, director of the Pittsburgh American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), which represents the plaintiffs.

"Basic fairness and human dignity do not hinge on who will be the next governor or who wins the state legislature this fall or what a neighboring university does," Walczak said. "Asked what's right and what's wrong, this committee didn't answer — it reported on what it thinks others believe is right and wrong, and decided it's too risky to provide equal benefits now."

Walczak said the ACLU "won't wait long" before re-opening the lawsuit, if Pitt continues to deny same-sex benefits to its employees. He declined to be more specific.

Another ACLU lawyer, Christine Biancheria (who called the special committee's report "disgusting" and "cowardly"), said: "Basically, we need to meet with our clients and assess our options."

History associate professor Bruce Venarde, a plaintiff in the lawsuit against Pitt, said of the special committee's report: "Here, in slightly different form, are all the same tired rationalizations against policy change — cost, fear of reprisal from Harrisburg, lack of objective evidence about any harm done by unequal compensation and the appearance of intolerance — that the administration has been mouthing for years.

"I hope the chancellor will have more courage and principle than the authors of this report. Perhaps, given the success of the University's capital campaign, Pitt can afford to take a risk and do the right thing."

Plaintiff Ray Anne Lockard, head of the Frick Fine Arts Library, said: "I know we won't take this lying down," but said she wasn't sure if she favored going back to court.

"Yes, [the issue] is complex," added Lockard. "But the message is, faculty members who have legal spouses matter; the rest of us don't matter. Pitt does not value us. They don't say in that report that [gays and lesbians] get a smaller benefits package."

"I'm gay and I happen to be Jewish," said plaintiff Mark Friedman, a staff member at the Graduate School of Public Health. "If the University said I couldn't get these benefits because I was Jewish, what would the reaction be?"

q Nordenberg said he would seriously consider the report's recommendations. He urged the University community to read the report carefully and reflect on it thoughtfully, "as I intend to do."

"It would appear that, received in the proper spirit, [the report] can be a source of constructive insights that can take us even further away from some of the contentious, and essentially unproductive, exchanges of the past," Nordenberg wrote.

Committee chairperson Lieberman said, "I'm proud of the report and I'm proud of the fact that it was endorsed unanimously" by the 12-member committee, which included two members each from trustees, alumni, administrators, faculty, staff and students.

Lieberman said the committee met "a little more often than monthly" since last June. He referred all other questions to Robert Hill, Pitt vice chancellor for Public Affairs.

Hill declined to say whether Pitt has contacted, or plans to contact, other state-related universities to coordinate strategy on same-sex benefits.

Nor would Hill reveal how much Pitt paid William M. Mercer, Inc., the University's consultant on benefits programs, and Greenlee Partners, a lobbying and business strategies firm that "was asked to test the political waters in Harrisburg and report to the committee," according to the report.

The committee said the cost of extending health benefits to same-sex partners would equal 0.6 percent of Pitt's health insurance costs. The committee also considered the option of extending the benefits to employees' heterosexual as well as homosexual partners, a move the committee was told would equal 1.6 percent of Pitt's current health insurance cost.

The University currently pays $30 million annually for health insurance. That cost is expected to rise to $45 million-to-$58 million annually over the next five years, the report stated.

"Asking to implement a domestic partner health insurance benefit now would probably give cause for UPMC [Health Plan] to ask for a re-negotiation of the contract that would most assuredly increase the University's cost well beyond the cost of implementing a domestic partner health insurance benefit," committee members wrote.

Hill said that conclusion "was based on talking with people at UPMC Health Plan." Tony Pasquale, UPMC Health Plan director of corporate communications and public affairs, told the University Times: "We do not discuss our clients' contracts. Period."

All Pitt employees likely would bear the extra cost of extending health benefits to same-sex partners, the report said. "Given the current economic circumstances, these expenses when added to other rising health insurance costs may not be well received by the University's employees," the committee wrote.

Plaintiff Keith Beer, a staff member in the Registrar's office, said he was disturbed by the report's suggestion that his fellow Pitt employees would oppose a same-sex benefits program because they would have to pay its costs. "What does that say to me as a gay employee?" Beer asked. "If they had this policy and changed one word to 'women' or 'disabled' or 'African American,' wouldn't there be an outcry?"

Based on a Faculty Assembly vote favoring same-sex benefits, letters to the University Times and discussions with senior academic administrators, the committee concluded that "most faculty who offer an opinion on the topic consider the lack of domestic partner health insurance benefits a shortcoming, rather than a positive aspect of the University."

But the committee added: "Discussions within the committee indicate that there is little support for same-sex domestic partner benefits among the staff without the inclusion of opposite-sex domestic partner benefits."

Committee member Rich Colwell, immediate past president of Pitt's Staff Association Council, would not comment on how the committee polled staff for their opinions. He referred the University Times to committee chairperson Lieberman, who referred the question to Hill. Hill said, "As the report indicates, that conclusion was based on discussions within the committee."

Joshua Ferris, president of the Rainbow Alliance student organization, accused the special committee of "stalling tactics," adding: "We wasted another year with a committee we thought would act in good faith." He said Rainbow Alliance representatives will appear at community events such as Pittsburgh's June 15-22 Gay Pride Week, "distributing information on how Pitt discriminates," until the bulk of Pitt students return to campus next fall.

"And, by the way," Ferris said, "wasn't it convenient that this report was dated April 17 and not released until May 9?"

Hill pointed out that the report was not given to Nordenberg until after commencement, as indicated by the April 30 cover letter to the chancellor from committee chairperson Lieberman.

"The University's senior administration had no control over when the committee transmitted its report to the chancellor," Hill said.

Hill defended the special committee against its critics. "This is a committee of respected members of the University community, representing the University's primary constituencies," he said. "The committee was not hand-picked. Its membership was recommended by the leaders of the constituent groups. We owe the committee a debt of gratitude for its hard work."

— Bruce Steele & Peter Hart

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