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May 18, 2000


Pitt stance on same-sex benefits based on prejudice

(Editor's note: The author of the following letter is a plaintiff in the same-sex benefits law suit against the University.)

To the editor:

I am writing in response to Judge Gallo's recent decision on health benefits for same-sex domestic partners. Gallo has ruled that Pittsburgh's Human Relations Commission may not force Pitt to provide these benefits. However, it is important to know that state law does not in any way prohibit the University from providing health benefits to same-sex domestic partners.

Why then does the University refuse to provide these benefits and what should the role of the University's Board of Trustees be?

Pitt's allegation that we are challenging marriage law is incorrect. Our case has nothing to do with marriage. It is about equal benefits for equal work. Pitt's refusal to provide the benefits is not about money either. The experience of other universities suggests that it would cost Pitt about $35,000 a year. Further, it is not about what insurers will do. UPMC, the University's sole provider of health insurance, has publicly stated that they will not add a surcharge to their fees should the University provide these benefits. And it is not because the provision of these benefits would jeopardize state funding. While this has occurred in other states, the reductions in appropriations have been insignificant and short-lived.

Pitt's refusal to provide health benefits to same-sex domestic partners has nothing to do with what is best for the University or the region. Chancellor Nordenberg seeks to transform Pitt into a word-class university. We therefore need to compete with schools such as the University of Pennsylvania, Columbia, Harvard, MIT, Princeton and over 100 others that provide these benefits. Finally, their position hurts our region. The University seeks to support the growth of high-technology companies in southwestern Pennsylvania. However, the high-tech sector has been in the forefront of providing health benefits for same-sex domestic partners. Many talented people will consider corporations and universities in other places given the Univer-sity's position.

All that is left is prejudice. I believe that it is time to focus on the source of that prejudice. That source is not Mark Nordenberg. Don't get me wrong, he is part of the problem in that he won't stand up to the trustees. But we know that while dean of the School of Law he did not stand in the way of, and some say he actually supported, a student-led effort to prevent ROTC from recruiting at that school because of their discriminatory policies. It is widely known that Dennis O'Connor lost his job, in part, because of his support of benefits for same-sex domestic partners. I believe that Mark Nordenberg is simply afraid of losing his job. He is unwilling to stand up for what he believes is the right thing to do.

I believe that the source of the prejudice is J. Wray Connolly, chair of Pitt's Board of Trustees. He said in his deposition that he supported legislation to deny Pitt funding if it provided these benefits. He also said he had a problem with gay people working with children because they might proselytize the children. His opposition to providing these benefits has nothing to do with the law and has everything to do with prejudice, fear, ignorance and intolerance.

I want to send two messages to the trustees. First, I personally invite J. Wray Connolly to lunch. I want to sit down with Mr. Connolly and help him deal with his fear by telling him about my life and my relationship with my partner Raymond Yeo. I want him to understand that our relationship of 12 years is as loving, caring and respectful as any other I know of. Yet I was not able to put Raymond on my health benefits plan. Yes, we lost some money. But what really hurts is that the University does not value me as much as a heterosexual employee. I want Mr. Connolly to understand that our relationship is certainly no threat to him. I want him to understand that his pre-judgements are unfair and destructive.

I also call upon the majority of the trustees who seem to be afraid to stand up to Connolly. I know that there are many trustees who understand, regardless of what the administration says, that this case is about discrimination and that providing health benefits to same-sex domestic partners would strengthen this institution. The majority has a responsibility to stand up to what appears to be a handful of trustees who are dictating policy at Pitt against the will of faculty and students. At minimum, the trustees have an obligation to engage in serious debate at the board level, something that has not occurred.

There is no doubt that the University of Pittsburgh will enter the 21st century at some point and provide health benefits to same-sex domestic partners. The only question is whether the trustees of this University will permit this discriminatory and damaging policy to continue.

Mark S. Friedman

Research Specialist

Graduate School of Public Health


Ken Service, director of the Office of News & Information, replies:

The April 20 ruling from the Court of Common Pleas referenced by Mr. Friedman was the outcome of the first opportunity any judicial officer has had to review the issues in this four-year legal proceeding. After carefully reviewing the extensive record in this case, the court has prohibited Mr. Friedman and the other six complainants from proceeding with the action against the University pending before the Pittsburgh Human Relations Commission.

The court ruling clearly upheld what has been the University's position throughout these proceedings – namely that the University's health benefits plan is legal and non-discriminatory, that the extension of benefits can lawfully be based on marital status, and that there has never been any intent to discriminate against individuals on the basis of sexual orientation.

In reaching his unsubstantiated conclusions, Mr. Friedman appears to have ignored the court's findings, along with a number of other very significant facts:

— Members of the state legislature have publicly stated that appropriations might be withheld from state-related institutions that extended health-insurance benefits to same-sex couples.

— In June of last year, three-quarters of the members of the House of Representatives voted for a measure that would have cut off state funds to any state-owned or state-related university providing same-sex health benefits.

— Representatives of the executive branch have publicly indicated that the state government does not offer same-sex benefits to its employees, and so, it would be inappropriate for a state-related university to contradict that policy.

— No other state-related or state-owned university in Pennsylvania offers these benefits, and at least one other has rejected the request for same-sex benefits in the face of these messages from the Commonwealth.

— In an April 1, 2000, editorial, the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette stated that the University of Pittsburgh is "dependent on funding from a state Legislature that might punish Pitt financially if the university moved to offer same-sex benefits."

While Mr. Friedman may be free to ignore these facts, the policies of state government, and the potential financial jeopardy inherent in challenging them, remain significant issues that Pitt cannot ignore.

As far as Pitt's competitive position goes, the fact remains that fewer than 5 percent of the nation's colleges and universities offer same-sex benefits. Perhaps even more significantly, the majority of the members of the Association of American Universities, Pitt's primary peer group, do not offer same-sex benefits. Most of those that do are private institutions and, as such, do not face the same issues regarding state government policies that affect Pitt and other state-owned and state-related universities.

Finally, let me suggest to Mr. Friedman that most reasonable people would consider the active pursuit of litigation an impediment to conversation, rather than a prelude to a lunch invitation.



Clarifying the facts on UPMC

To the editor:

In the April 13 issue of the University Times, Professor Nathan Hershey raises questions in his commentary on my recent lecture to the faculty of the School of Medicine entitled "Sustaining the Academic Enterprise: UPMC Health System Vision for 2000 and Beyond." In response, below are certain facts that may not have been clear in the presentation or in the material Professor Hershey references:

a. As of March 2000, the UPMC Health System had $3.7 billion in assets, $2.2 billion in liabilities with approximately $1.5 billion in fund balance/net assets and $1.7 billion in investments. Our revenue for fiscal year 2000 will approach $3 billion.

b. Professor Hershey is correct to raise concerns regarding historical losses in the UPMC Health Plan. However, it should be noted that as of Jan. 1, 2000, we are operating the health plan at a break-even or slightly positive margin while our provider hospitals continue to be profitable.

Jeffrey A. Romoff


UPMC Health System

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