Allegheny County announced last week plans to cut off benefits to same-sex partners of its employees. The move was made because same-sex couples can now marry in Pennsylvania. Same-sex couples receiving benefits from Allegheny County must now show proof of marriage, or lose their domestic partner benefits.
It’s not so much the cutting off of benefits that has some worried, but the timeline. The benefits will be terminated August 1, giving employees and their partners little more than a month to arrange for new coverage, or get legally married.
The timing is bad all around for Eileen Halloran. She is the partner of an Allegheny County employee and has health issues.
“I had numerous surgeries on my one leg and knee, to correct the other one I have major surgery scheduled at Allegheny General on August 25, which obviously won’t happen," Halloran said. "I was told by a different doctor that I also need to have a hysterectomy. I have another physical problem with my arm, so basically I’m going to need three major surgeries.”
The county advises those losing benefits to sign up for healthcare coverage under the Affordable Care Act, but Halloran said she’s unsure what she’ll qualify for with numerous pre-existing conditions. She and her partner are planning on legally marrying – but not until 2016.
“Seriously, to get wedding invitations printed, to rent a hall, to get a caterer, to get a florist, to get all of my relatives and partner’s relatives from out of state here to celebrate with us within 30 days is completely unreasonable,” Halloran said.
For Halloran 30 days is not enough time. That idea is echoed by David Moore with the group Marriage Equality For PA (ME4PA).
“Some time frame between six months and a year should allow enough people to make adequate preparations to either change health insurance policies and other sorts of insurance policies, or gives them enough time to decide if they want to get married,” said Moore.
Allegheny County’s Director of Human Resources Laura Zaspel said the reason for the change is equality.
“In an effort to consistently administer the employee benefits package of the county, it was determined as a matter of fairness and consistency, that the same proof be required to be shown to show marriage for same-sex as well as opposite-sex partners,” said Zaspel.
But, Halloran said she is worried about the ripple effects.
“I believe that if the county starts doing this, that it’s going to roll over probably to the city of Pittsburgh and their employees, and then what about the other major corporations down the line? Is everybody in the city going to have 30 days to get married?”
The city of Pittsburgh currently offers domestic partner benefits, but a city spokesman said staffers are currently reviewing the city’s policies in the wake of the same-sex marriage decision. The city’s personnel department said benefits policies are continually reviewed because of changing laws and regulations. Calls and emails to several companies in the region asking about the status of their benefits were not returned.
Gary Van Horn is president of the Delta Foundation, a Pittsburgh LGBT organization. He said Allegheny County’s announcement was not a surprise.
“It’s a conversation that corporations and also government is having right now,” he said. “At the end of the day, we wanted to be treated just like everybody else. It would not be fair to give special rights to folks. We know that domestic partner benefits was something to put in place of marriage, I guess you could say, and now the day has come when we want to be treated just like everybody else.”
But there’s another issue at play in Pennsylvania, according to Van Horn.
"In Pennsylvania there’s no statewide anti-discrimination bill based on sexual orientation, gender identity and expression," he said. "People can get married one day and fired the next day, which is obviously a concern that we have.”
All other northeast states have anti-discrimination laws that prohibit discrimination based on sexual orientation. A bill pending in the Pennsylvania House has not been able to make it out of committee.