Domestic Partner Health Benefits

Background Material on Columbia University's Extension of Domestic Partner Health Benefits to Same-Sex Couples, 10/1993


Prepared by Stephen Davis, Co-convener,
Gay/Bisexual/Lesbian Faculty, Staff & Supporters at Columbia University (GABLES-CU)

In 1993, in what may have been a unique event at the time, Columbia University's Provost invited a group of lesbigay faculty and staff to participate in the process of developing a proposal for domestic partner health benefits. Columbia was not under any immediate pressure of a lawsuit, as other institutions have been. Those asked by the University to draft the initial proposal had just formed the first campus group ever established at Columbia for lesbigay faculty and staff.  This group is GABLES-CU (Gay, Bisexual & Lesbian Faculty, Staff and Supporters at Columbia University); it was established in February 1993 to work with the University on exactly such issues also to give lesbigay faculty and staff increased visibility on campus.

The Columbia draft prepared by GABLES-CU was based on policies at Stanford and Chicago; it went through several drafts and was reviewed by some two dozen interested lesbigay faculty and staff.  Early drafts included a provision for using NY City's new domestic party registry as proof of domestic partnership, but this requirement was dropped from the final policy. It was submitted to the Provost at the end of February.

The draft policy was then reviewed by the University's Committee on Fringe Benefits. Reports of the meeting indicate that there was some opposition to the proposal based on the notion that it would be too expensive, unnecessary, inequitable to straights, unwise during periods of fringe benefit cuts. Discussions apparently also revealed a great deal of ignorance on the part of heterosexual faculty about lesbigay issues as well as only thinly veiled hostility. The majority of the committee -- including the Provost -- did support the proposal, however, and it was forwarded to the Trustees in June 1993.

Columbia's proposal to the State Insurance Commissioner was submitted via the Oxford Group, the University's main HMO and was initially turned down at the end of September 1993.  By coincidence, this request apparently came to the state at virtually the same time as Mayor Dinkin's proposal to make good on his previous campaign pledge to NYC lesbigays, to extend health benefits to the DPs of city workers. The Cuomo administration apparently directed the insurance commissioner to change his long-standing opposition to DP health benefits in state-certified health plans..


Issues Surrounding DP Health Care Benefits

Among the issues surrounding DP health care benefits are:

  • Possible extension to unmarried heterosexuals
  • Most colleges and universities with DP benefits have not extended them to unmarried heterosexual couples, although some private companies have. The arguments here tend to be:

    • Heterosexual couples are allowed to get married; the fact that they don't is their choice; same-sex couples cannot be married
    • There are heterosexual "family units" that cannot get married, e.g., an elderly sister and brother living together; shouldn't they be allowed DP benefits?
    • It increases support for DP benefits when heterosexuals are included; but it also potentially raises costs
    • Providing DP benefits to unmarried heterosexual couples raises questions about the entire approach to benefits most universities have, i.e., giving employees extra compensation by virtue of their married/DP status or the fact that they have children--compensation that those not falling into those categories are denied. For similar reasons, some academic institutions and private firms have started to investigate "cafeteria-style" benefits, whereby, for example, each employee is alotted and additional $3000 above salary to allocate toward any one of a defined set of benefits, such as spousal and children's benefits, day care, tuition exemption, etc. This, however, would be a radical change for most institutions with potentially major cost implications in a time in which fringe benefits are being cut in many places.

  • Criteria for demonstrating DP status
  • While most lesbigay faculty and staff at Columbia will welcome the availability of DP benefits, some resent being asked to demonstrate living arrangements or financial interdependence beyond those that married couples are required to show. In fact, most universities never ask to see any proof of marriage before granting spousal benefits, and some unmarried heterosexual couples have actually used this laxness to obtain benefits for which they would ordinarily be ineligible.

    The most frequent DP qualifying criteria are: having shared a household for six prior months and being able to demonstrate financial interdependence, e.g., by having a joint mortgage or lease; designating the partner as beneficiary for life insurance or retirement benefits; designating the partner as primary beneficiary in the employee's will; assigning durable power of attorney or health care power of attorney to the partner; or having a joint bank account, credit account, or motor vehicle.

    Virtually none of these standards currently need to be met by married couples. In fact many couples, both straight and lesbigay, have long distance relationships and are not really financially interdependent, except perhaps in the area of inheritance, which varies depending on individual state law.

    GABLES-CU will, in due course, be preparing proposals for liberalizing the DP qualifying criteria and making them more on a par with those met by married couples.

  • Status of dependent children of employee's domestic partner
  • The terms under which children of the non-employee partner can qualify for dependent benefits varies amoung those institutions having DP policies. In some cases the employee must be shown to be the primary supporter of the child; Columbia and others have granted the same benefits to a partner's children as to the employee's.

  • Tax implications of DP and dependent benefits
  • The question of whether benefits granted to DPs constitute additional taxable compensation for the employee him or herself are complicated and need further investigation.

  • Costs of implementing the DP proposal
  • The question of how much the new policy would cost the University was difficult to answer. There were those who feared that the policy would result in many gays taking advantage of the benefit for partners with AIDS, leaving the University vulnerable to extraordinary costs.  Fortunately, the experience in other locations (mostly companies and municipalities) showed that only small numbers of individuals took advantage of DP benefits when they were offered, and that the costs were not great. Needless to say, most lesbigays do not have DPs with AIDS, in fact most DPs of college and university lesbigays have careers and are covered under their own health benefit programs.

  • Other related benefits
  • (e.g., tuition exemption for DP, bereavement leave, housing benefits, gymnasium and library privileges)

    In most cases colleges and universities have not reviewed benefits across the board and made them equally available to DPs.  Some institutions with DP health benefits do not allow DP tuition exemption benefits (Columbia); some grant DP tuition exemption but not health benefits. At Columbia, the sense among faculty/staff lesbigays has been that after the most important benefit had been provided, other lesser benefits would follow, and plans are in fact being made to encourage the university to move in these other areas. Unfortunately, this is taking place against a background of cuts in benefits generally at Columbia and elsewhere.

Return to GABLES-CU Home Page
Last revision: 11/09/01