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October 23, 1997

University to fight discrimination complaint about health benefits

Pitt still plans to fight a discrimination com plaint by former law school instructor Deborah Henson, despite a University Senate committee's plea that Pitt monies would be better spent on extending employee medical coverage than on legal fees.

Henson filed the complaint in January 1996 with the Pittsburgh Human Relations Commission, alleging that Pitt violated a city anti-discrimination ordinance by refusing to extend health care coverage to her same-sex partner.

The commission has not yet scheduled a hearing to determine the merits of Henson's complaint.

Rather than pay attorneys to fight Henson's complaint, Pitt's administration should permit each employee to designate one person in his or her household to receive medical benefits currently granted only to spouses, the Senate anti-discriminatory policies committee maintains.

Roman Catholic bishops in San Francisco adopted such a policy after Catholic charities were denied public funds on the grounds that they were discriminating against employees in non-traditional households, said Richard Tobias, interim chairperson of the anti-discriminatory policies committee.

Extending faculty and staff benefits this way would cost the University about $25,000 annually — less than what Pitt probably would spend opposing Henson's claim, Tobias maintained.

Pitt administrators disputed both halves of Tobias's equation.

Fighting Henson's claim "would not be very costly," Chancellor Mark Nordenberg told Senate Council Oct. 13, in response to a question from Tobias. "We're not talking about a proceeding that involves the generation of any kind of extensive factual record. Instead, we're talking about what ultimately will be the resolution of a relatively straightforward legal question." Nordenberg, a former Pitt law school dean, declined to estimate how much money the University would spend opposing Henson's claim.

"No one experienced in litigation, with reasonable judgment — and I am experienced in litigation; that is my specialty, and most times I have reasonable judgment — discloses specific investments in any case. And I'm not going to break that pattern here." As for the $25,000 price tag of extending medical coverage to one member of each Pitt employee's household (be that person a spouse, same-sex partner or blood relation), the head of the University's Human Resources office said the estimate seemed "extremely low" to him.

Ron Frisch, interim associate vice chancellor for Human Resources, said he didn't know how his predecessor, Darlene Lewis, came up with the estimate. It would be "very, very difficult" for Human Resources to predict the cost of extending medical benefits as Tobias's committee recommends, Frisch said. "There are too many questions we don't know the answers to. It would involve a whole lot of assumptions," he said.

But Frisch noted that, as of July 31, 3,248 of Pitt's 7,245 employees were covered as individuals under the University's health insurance plans, and 985 more had waived Pitt coverage (in many cases, because they prefer to be covered by their spouses' plans).

Assuming members of the latter group might choose to join a Pitt plan if the University extended coverage as Tobias recommends, that adds up to 4,233 employees who could be eligible to add household members to their coverage, Frisch said.

Multiply each of those employees by $100 per month (a conservative estimate, Frisch said, of the cost to Pitt and the employee of adding a household member to the employee's coverage) and the total cost to the University, its faculty and staff could be as much as $5 million annually. Pitt's share of the total would vary depending on the plans in which employees were enrolled.

— Bruce Steele

Filed under: Feature,Volume 30 Issue 5

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