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June 13, 2002

Faculty Assembly may press for answer about same-sex benefits

Does Chancellor Mark Nordenberg favor or oppose extending Pitt health benefits to employees' same-sex domestic partners?

How, and when, will his administration proceed on the same-sex benefits issue?

Faculty Assembly will press Nordenberg to answer these questions next fall, if the chairperson of the University Senate's anti-discriminatory policies committee has his way.

Richard Tobias announced at the June 4 Faculty Assembly meeting that his committee, together with the Senate's benefits and welfare committee, are drafting a joint resolution for the Assembly to consider at its next scheduled meeting on Sept. 3.

The resolution, if approved by Faculty Assembly, would represent the Assembly's response to a recent report by the University special committee that studied whether Pitt should extend same-sex health benefits.

In a later interview, Tobias elaborated. "We're going to ask the chancellor to make a clear statement of his own position" on same-sex health benefits, he said. "Secondly, we'll ask him to tell us by Nov. 28, the last scheduled Faculty Assembly meeting of the fall, to report what his administration plans to do on this issue."

During the June 10 Senate Council meeting, Nordenberg commented on the special committee's report but did not indicate how, or when, Pitt's administration will act next on the same-sex benefits issue, except to say that he is discussing it with the presidents of Temple and Penn State.

After 10 months of study, the special committee — composed of two representatives each from Pitt's administration, alumni, faculty, staff, students and trustees — concluded that "there is no simple solution" to the same-sex benefits issue, and that Pitt probably should offer such benefits eventually although doing so now "would not be prudent."

The report warned of a possible "harmful confrontation" with the Pennsylvania legislature, coupled with "a substantial financial penalty" because UPMC Health Plan likely would insist on renegotiating its current, three-year health insurance contract with Pitt. The contract runs through June 30, 2003.

"At least two aspects of that report were striking to me," the chancellor said: It was "very thoughtful," and committee members endorsed it unanimously. "Given the nature of the issues presented and the diversity of the group assembled to deal with them, I frankly did not anticipate" approval by all 12 committee members, Nordenberg said.

"The report did not, of course, please everyone," he continued. "And if it had, that really would have been a miracle. But my own sense, from conversations on and off campus, is that people generally view this as a highly responsible effort. Certainly, it reflects the best efforts of a group of caring and committed individuals who want this to be a warm and welcoming institution, as we all do.

"In fact, I think one of the most telling aspects of the report was the committee's expressed concern that [unilateral] action taken by this University 'could actually result in legislation that would preclude the offering of such benefits by all state-related institutions, legislation that could eliminate any possibility for any such benefits for a long time here in Pennsylvania,' to use the report's language.

"I share that concern, and I also share the committee's belief that Pitt should work cooperatively with the other state-related universities to address this issue. In fact, the presidents of Penn State, Temple and I have been involved in regular discussions of the issue. I have every reason to believe that those discussions will continue" — although "for the very near term," Nordenberg said, discussions among the three will focus on their schools' state appropriations for the next fiscal year. See story on page 1.

Following Nordenberg's report, faculty, staff and student members of Senate Council had the opportunity to question him about same-sex health benefits (and other controversial issues, including employees' access to recreation facilities at the Petersen Events Center) but did not do so.

Meeting briefly with reporters following Senate Council, Nordenberg refused to elaborate on his comments. "I've said all I'm going to say for now," the chancellor stated.

q UPMC Health Plan officials have refused to comment on whether they would insist on renegotiating Pitt's contract — a move almost certain to raise the University's premiums — if Pitt began offering same-sex health benefits.

But a Pitt spokesperson told the University Times that the special committee reached its conclusion based on advice from consultants William M. Mercer, Inc., and that Mercer's advice was "based on talking with people at UPMC Health Plan."

At Faculty Assembly last week, Assembly member James Holland said the special committee's conclusion contradicted what a UPMC Health Plan official told him when Pitt was negotiating its current health insurance contract.

Holland co-chairs the Senate's benefits and welfare committee and served on the University committee that advised Pitt's administration on the current contract. Holland recalled: "I specifically asked the representative of UPMC Health Plan, 'What would be the impact on our rates of providing health benefits to same-sex partners?' He said, 'None.'"

Each month, UPMC Health Plan's costs increase or decrease slightly as Pitt employees marry, divorce, have children or otherwise add to (or subtract from) the number of plan participants here, Holland pointed out.

Extending health benefits to Pitt faculty and staff members' same-sex partners would be equivalent, Holland argued, to a small percentage of employees marrying and adding their spouses to their coverage.

–Bruce Steele

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